Tag Archives: Ed and Brenda Mackey

Review: Breakout, Part 2

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The three of us were together now in Q and I knew from old experience that anyone in Q would sell his old mother for a pack of cigarettes.  But all the same, I was puzzled and depressed.  Puzzled because I couldn’t clarify what I had really meant to say when I got up to speak at the meeting, depressed because if there was no liberty which I could define then equally there was no escape.  I remained awake for hours that night thinking of it.  Beyond the restless searchlights which stole in through every window and swept the hut till it was bright as day I could feel the wide fields of Ireland around me, but even the wide fields of Ireland were not wide enough.  Choice was an illusion.  Seeing that a man can never really get out of jail, the great thing is to ensure that he gets into the biggest possible one with the largest possible array of modern amenities.

From the short story Freedom, by Frank O’Connor

“Tile,” Parker said.  “It’s a tile wall.”

Mackey reached in to pull a strip of the Sheetrock away.  He held it in both hands and they looked at the face of it, which was pale green  “It’s waterproofed,” Mackey said.  “We found a bathroom.”

Williams said “We won’t know if there’s a mirror on it until we break it.”

“A mirror in a bathroom,” Mackey decided, “this far to the back of the building, isn’t gonna wake anybody up.  If it comes down to it, I’ll volunteer for the bad luck.”

“We’ve got all the bad luck already,” Williams told him.  “Parker and me, we already broke out once, and here we are again.”

Picking up a hammer and screwdriver, Parker said “We’re running out of time,” and went back to work.

Parker makes a good point.  I spent all of Part 1 of this review on Part One of this novel.  Part 2 has to cover Parts Two, Three, and Four.  Let’s get back to work.

Westlake started writing this book with the idea that it would be about Parker going to prison, escaping, and then doing a quick heist near the prison before heading back to New Jersey.  Now just that bare bones concept suggests a daunting array of technical challenges–how to get Parker out of prison, how to execute the heist, how to get him through the police dragnet.

But then came an even more daunting challenge, in the form of Lyme Disease, perhaps picked up while walking near his rural upstate New York home.  Westlake managed to keep typing until he’d gotten Parker out, and then went to the hospital for four days; couldn’t work for six weeks after he got out of the hospital.  Westlake was almost 70, and it’s reasonable to assume he hadn’t fully recovered by the time he started writing again.  If he ever did.

But as he said later, it was when he reviewed what he’d already written that he realized escape was the overriding theme of the entire book, not just the section dealing with the prison.  There are all kinds of prisons in this world that we may have to try and get out of–hospitals, for example.  Physical afflictions.   Prisons within prisons within prisons (to repurpose Thomas Merton).

So Parker and his ‘friends’ (maybe not quite the right word, and that’s another theme in the book–personal and professional reciprocity, the pros and cons of it, no pun intended but there it is anyway) will have to break out again and again, before they win free of this morass, and live to heist another day.

We pick up in Part Two, right after Parker, Brandon Williams, and Tom Marcantoni, have  escaped the previously escape-proof Stoneveldt Prison, with the help of Ed Mackey, and some of Marcantoni’s criminal colleagues.  They drive to an isolated area by a lake to change clothes, and take stock.  Parker and Williams gave Marcantoni their promise they’d help him and his buddies out with a heist in the nearby midwestern city Williams and Marcantoni both hail from.

This is the multi-POV part of the book, where we get to know some of the players other than Parker.  We start off with Williams, who enjoys the distinction of being the first African American POV character to appear in a Parker novel (not the first black POV character by a long shot; see The Black Ice Score).  He’s reacting about the way you’d expect a black man to react when surrounded by strange white men, all of whom are capable of violence and not much for PC. He’s wondering if he’s going to be alive much longer.

He’s also noticing that the man he knew as Kasper is being referred to as Parker. Even though he’s been a heistman for much of his adult life, he’s still the fish out of water here, but there are reasons Parker, one of the best talent scouts in his field, picked him for the escape crew, and we learn a bit about how he came to be the man he is.

Brandon Williams had grown used to this level of tension, never knowing exactly how to react to the people around him, who and what to watch out for, where it was safe to put a foot.  Part of it was skin color, but the rest was the life he’d lived, usually on the bent.  He’d had square jobs, but they’d never lasted.  He’d always known the jobs were beneath him, that he was the smartest man on the job site or the factory floor, but that it didn’t matter how smart he was, or how much he knew, or the different things he’d read.  The knowledge would make him arrogant and angry, and sooner or later there’d be a fight, or he’d be fired.

The people he mostly got along with were, like him, on the wrong side of the law.  If wasn’t that they were smart, most of them, but that they kept to themselves.  He got along with people who kept to themselves; that way, he could keep to himself, too.

I’d say Williams is a somewhat overdue homage to all the black men who’d written fan letters to Westlake (as Stark) after the Parker novels started coming out–not all of them necessarily felons, but all of them feeling alienated from society, at odds with it, and liking Parker so much because they knew he’d understand their problems, if not necessarily give a damn about them.  Not reacting to Parker as a white man, but just as somebody who knew the score, and cared no more about color than blood type.  And we all bleed red.

So Williams doesn’t trust any of these people, but he needs them, and as long as they need him too, it’s all cool.  He doesn’t like having to pull a job right out of the joint any more than Parker does, but that was Marcantoni’s price for coming in with them.  Macontoni’s crew do have a good base of operations, at an abandoned building that used to be a beer distributor.

Next chapter is Marcantoni’s, and it’s where we learn about what the heist is–a jewelry wholesaler.  But in a most unusual location.  Back around the Mid-19th century, a huge brick armory was constructed in the town, of the type Americans are well familiar with. Municipalities all over the country are still looking for something to do with these white elephants, built like fortresses because that’s what they were, now that most of them are no longer needed for their original purpose.  Williams remembers when they used this one for track and field, but that didn’t last.

(Up top, you can see a picture of the Kingsbridge Armory in the Bronx, an exceptionally fine example of the general architectural form; built in 1910, and New York is still looking for something useful to do with it.)

The city finally gave up on the place, sold it to developers, who turned the upper levels into expensive condos.  But the ground floor was a problem, because it really had been built to repel invaders (‘like if the Indians had tanks’ Marcantoni snarkily observes).  Very thick walls, very narrow windows.  Who wants a place like that?  Somebody with something valuable to protect, but no need to bring in customers off the street.

Marcantoni, needing a job after his parole, got hired to work on the reconstruction project.  And he found out something really neat (seriously, if I found this, I’d want to pull a heist too).  The original builders put in a secret tunnel in case the defenders, (perhaps under siege from Lakota warriors armed with medieval trebuchets) needed to escape.  Not in the official plans, completely forgotten about.   And the other end of the tunnel is in the old library building across the street.

Williams, smartest man in the room as usual (with one possible exception), has some concerns about the structural stability of a 150 year old tunnel, but here’s the problem.  Marcantoni is in love with this job.  He can’t see past it. He’s waited a long time to pull it (so nobody would remember he was on the reconstruction crew).  It’s the main reason he escaped.  He knows he needs a big crew to deal with the logistical problems, and he doesn’t mind splitting the very substantial proceeds six ways.  He will take it very personally if Parker and his friends don’t live up to their end of the agreement.  It’s agreed they’ll do it Sunday.  Nobody much feels like waiting around.

Chapter 3 is from the perspective of Goody, a lowlife Williams has the misfortune to be acquainted with.  He’s heard about the escape.  He knows Williams’ sister, about the only person on earth Williams is close to.   He goes to see her, and says if her brother gets in touch, let him know, maybe he could help. Help himself to a nice fat reward, is what he’s thinking.  Like so many a minor Stark POV character, he’s not nearly as smart as he thinks he is, and before long his plans come to naught, but he will figure into the plot later, so worth mentioning.

And then we’re at an exercise class inside the armory, and who should we see but Brenda Mackey, attending an exercise class.  She doesn’t need to get in shape, her shape is delightful as always, but she knows her husband Ed is going to rob this place, and she knows sometimes he needs help out of a jam (like that time in New York when he almost died), so she’s there to scout the place out in case she’s needed again.  Ed didn’t tell her to do this, but then again, he didn’t tell her not to do it.

(Later, we have another nice raunchy sex scene between the two, just before the heist–reminiscent of the one in Plunder Squad, and Brenda doesn’t seem to speak ersatz Chinese during coitus anymore, but she’s still quite vocal.)

It all goes fine, except Brenda catches the eye of Darlene Johnson-Ross, the woman who owns the studio, and this woman seems bothered by Brenda.   In the chapter after that, we find out this woman is having an affair with Henry Freedman, he whose jewelry wholesale business is about to get broken into, and she’s worried this attractive fit young woman taking a class much too easy for her is some kind of detective, or IRS agent, or something.  And all Henry is worried about is his wife finding out about Darlene.

Next we meet CID Detective Jason Rembek, who has been charged with recapturing the three escapees from Stoneveldt.  He knows most guys who break prison have no plan for what to do once they’re out, so are easily rounded up again.  He’s wondering if these three will be more of a challenge.  ‘Kasper’ is the one that attracts the most attention from him.

Rembek studied the few pictures he had of Kasper.  A hard face, bony, like outcroppings of stone.  Hard eyes; if they were the windows of the soul, the shades were drawn.

So.  The heist.  As happens surprisingly often in this book, it’s very cleverly written, takes up just one chapter, and is, shall we say, not 100% successful. They go in through the library, as planned. They get into the tunnel, as planned. They shore up the tunnel with folding tables, as planned. They get the jewels as planned. The ancient tunnel, in long-standing disrepair, compromised by street work above, collapses on Marcantoni and his two friends, Angioni and Kolaski, on their way out, very nearly smothering Williams too, except Parker pulls him out by the legs.  Not quite exactly as planned.

So they have a fortune in gems and watches.  Nobody knows they’re there, no alarms were tripped.  But the way the place is set up, and with the tunnel now permanently closed off, there’s no obvious way of exiting this part of the building without alerting security, who will alert the law, and it’s back to prison for all three of them (including Mackey, who wasn’t even in prison–he was just doing Parker a favor here–no good deed, huh?).

Williams wants to thank Parker for pulling him out of that hole, and Parker won’t let him.  He didn’t do it for Williams.  He did it because once again, he needs a crew to break out of a prison.  And this one they walked right into of their own free will.  He knew it was a mistake.  But he did it anyway.  End of Part Two, which is the only part of the book that isn’t about escaping from somewhere.

Part Three is the shortest of the four sections (Part One is the longest).  44 pages of Parker, Mackey, and Williams trying to get out of that armory without getting caught.  First thing they have to do is drop the loot.  It’s only going to slow them down, and they don’t have a fence for it–that was Marcantoni’s side of things, and the contact info died with him.

I like this part of the book a lot, the desolate desperate lonely feel of it, but there’s not much point in carefully synopsizing it.  It’s purely about three guys expert in breaking into places they’re not supposed to be trying to figure out a way to break out of a place they’re not supposed to be before morning, when none of them, of necessity, has ever been in there before, or done any advance scouting (Brenda did, but she isn’t there).  That quote up top tells you how it’s going to go.  Finding tools, breaking through walls, trying to avoid making too much noise, or setting off any alarms.  There are a lot of people living in this place.

They finally get out to where they could make it to the street, but not without passing the doorman for the apartments.  They need a distraction for him.  Mackey has a brainstorm.  They’re in an office.  There’s a yellow pages.  There’s a phone.  He finds an all-night pizza place.  He orders a pie.  Pepperoni, if you’re curious.  The guard goes to let the delivery guy in.  They get to the stairwell–but the stairs only go up.  Not down to the parking garage, where they wanted to go. An interesting exchange follows.

Parker said, “It’s the goddam security in this place.  They don’t want anybody in or out except past that doorman.”

“Well,” Mackey said, “that’s what people want nowadays, that sense of safety.”

Williams said, “Bullshit.  There’s no such thing as safety.”

“You’re right,” Mackey told him.  “But they don’t know that.”

We still don’t.

So they finally get to where they can get out to the street, but now they have a new problem.  Donald Westlake was a born problem solver, and this is the kind of problem he can truly relate to.  The physical challenges, but also the strategic ones.  They need more than just a means of egress–they need a means of escape, transportation, so they’re not trapped on  the empty streets outside, just waiting around for the law to scoop them up.

Mackey figures they can call Brenda–she can come pick them up.  Except none of them has a cellphone.  They have to go back into the trap, break into another office, use the phone there.  And then it turns out Brenda’s motel room phone is set not to receive calls until tomorrow morning.  And she doesn’t have a cellphone either.  They need somebody to come get them.  Williams has a really dangerous idea.

Goody.  Williams knows, for a stone fact, that Goody wants to sell him to the law. But he also knows Goody is stupid and greedy enough to come get him.  He and Parker work it out–set up a meet at a camera store across the street.  He’ll say he wants Goody to drop him in a little town nearby, where some relatives live, and he can hide out with them.  Goody will figure he can bring him there, then call the law on him–low risk, high reward, except Goody doesn’t know about Parker and Mackey.  They’ll just take the car and go.

(All three are heeled.  Parker has his usual go-to, the five shot Smith & Wesson Terrier .32 snubnose.  Now I’ll quibble, very briefly.  We’re told back in Part Two that Mackey has a Beretta Jaguar .22–we’re told he equipped Parker and Williams similarly.  Then we’re told in Part Three that Parker has a Terrier.  Let’s do a side-by-side comparison, shall we?

Okay, they’re both small handguns.  Other than that, not terribly similar.  And this is easily explained by Mackey knowing Parker’s tastes in armament.  And it still bothers me.  And this is why authors of crime fiction should think twice about getting specific on guns.)

Now what I left out of the Part Two synopsis is that Goody, who is a smalltime drug dealer, ran into problems with his supplier, who is a bit less small-time, and who had his men do things to Goody until he told them about the reward money he planned to get for Williams.  They’re going to come along and make sure they get their share.

So things get a bit confusing once they run out there to Goody’s black Mercury, and all of a sudden there’s a Land Rover pulling up, and three men with guns jump out.  Parker quickly figures the guy in the back of the Land Rover as the boss, drops him, and the other two are nothing without their brain.  Williams gives his old pal in the Merc a proper thank you for his loyalty.  So they end up driving away in the Land Rover, Williams at the wheel, the four interlopers left behind with bullet holes in them, and that’s the end of that subplot.  Goody.

Except a lot of gunfire in the street was never the ideal version of their plan. There’s jumpy security-obsessed rich people calling the police in those fancy apartments up above.  They figure on ditching the Land Rover for a carMackey has stashed nearby.  There’s a lot of maneuvering through a parking garage they take refuge in, and let’s just skip over that part.  “All I want,” Williams said, “is to be in a place I’m not trying to get out of.”  You said a mouthful, brother.

They get to where Mackey stashed a Honda, and it’s still too soon to contact Brenda–who has a car of her own.  So they offer Williams the Honda so he can get over the state line, start over.  He’s touched.  He gets the hell out of there before they can change their minds.  Strange strange white people.  They get some sleep, but then Mackey wakes Parker up.  Brenda has been arrested.  They have to break her out of jail.

Hey, maybe now would be the time for a little musical interlude, what do you say?  I posted an image of a watchtower in Part 1.  Here’s the song to go with it.

(I could have gone with Dylan, but you know, The Experience was two ofays and a brother as well.  Though this power trio we’re looking at is maybe a bit more even in the talent department.)

Part Four is less focused, more freewheeling.  Lots of ground to cover.  Parker comes downstairs, and finds Mackey and Williams sitting at the table.  He was supposed to be headed for the border, but just when he thought he was out, he pulls himself back in.  He heard about Brenda’s arrest on the radio, figured Parker and Mackey might need a hand. This is the first thing he’s done in the book to lower Parker’s opinion of him.

The radio provided Williams with a lot of information.  The cops found Marcantoni and the others in the rubble, dead of course.  They figure Parker and Williams were involved too.  Brenda got arrested by doing what she always does–hanging around nearby when Mackey is doing a job, in case he needs her to rescue him.  Like she did that time in New York, which is how Mackey is still alive, but without cellphones, there was no practical way she could help out, and that woman from the dance studio saw her hanging around and called the police. They figure she’s the brains of the outfit.  Which might be true if it was just her and Ed.

They have her in a city lock-up.  Williams knows the place.  Not as tough as Stoneveldt, but tough.  Ed’s all for going in.  Williams is dubious, but game.

Parker wants no part of this.  It’s long past time for him to get out of this hick town, like he should have done to start with.  Ed senses his reluctance, is angered by it.  Please remember, not only did Brenda save Ed’s life once–she’s the one who made Ed stick around and wait for Parker after that heist they pulled in Comeback.  Ed helped him break prison just now, stood by him on a heist that clearly wasn’t planned out properly, just out of loyalty.  If Parker owes anybody in this world, he owes Brenda and Ed Mackey. But in his mind, he doesn’t owe anyone anything.  Parker didn’t live by debts accumulated and paid off; is what the narrator tersely informs us.

Excuse me?   Mr. Stark?  Have you forgotten every previous book in this series?  ‘Debts accumulated and paid off ‘is basically all Parker lives by, starting with the debts he collected from his wife, and his former partner, and an entire criminal syndicate, in the very first of those books.  Debts Accumulated And Paid Off might as well be the epitaph on his tombstone, assuming he gets one.  Parker has risked himself far more seriously than this to pay off a blood debt to somebody who wronged him.  He’s also risked himself several times to help criminal associates like Handy McKay and Alan Grofield, though there were other factors involved besides loyalty each time.

You can, if you want, explain this away.  Parker comes after people who wrong him in some way because their treachery triggered a response he has no control over, and he needs to kill them to restore his mental equilibrium.  He helps fellow heisters he’s working a job with because that’s part of his professional ethic, and because he might need to work with them again someday–in this case, the job was over as soon as they got out of the armory.

He tells himself he’ll have to help Ed and Brenda now, because otherwise if he and Ed work together again someday, Ed won’t trust him anymore–but seeing as we never see him work with Ed again in the series, and he’s got a lot of other names stored away in his head, that doesn’t seem like enough of a reason.

It’s a much bigger motivational problem than the one in The Jugger, that bothered Westlake so much, and Westlake should have seen that.  If Parker isn’t helping the Mackeys out of professional solidarity, or out of a sense of obligation for what they’ve done for him–as Williams, a near-stranger is willing to do, just because Ed let him have the Honda–why the hell is he doing it?

Because Stark can’t let him do anything else.  Stark can’t ever let Parker appear ignoble.  But neither can Stark allow his pragmatic anti-hero any virtuous motives.  And usually that works out fine.  And this time, it feels a mite forced. As if Westlake, still hollowed out by his recent illness, couldn’t fully access that part of himself that could interpret Parker’s thoughts for us.  I had only read two previous Parker novels when I first got to this one.  I already knew it was wrong to say Parker doesn’t live by debts accumulated and paid off.  But how else would you say it?

But in critiquing the way Stark does it here, I still appreciate what an important question is being asked.  No matter how independent you are, you are still going to need help sometimes.  In order to reliably receive help, you will need to offer it in return.  Was Brenda right when she pulled Ed out of that burning lumberyard, but wrong when she was waiting around outside the armory to see if he needed her again?  How could she ever know for sure?  How can you know when you’ve crossed the line between legitimate obligations and sucker bets?  And isn’t there anything in this world besides debts accumulated and paid off?

Ed doesn’t care if he owes Brenda or not, because he loves her (he never says it, and he doesn’t need to).  If he walked away from her now, he’d be nothing. (Parker would never walk away from Claire either, of course, because she’s a part of him).  Williams just wants to respect himself in the morning–to feel like the man he was born to be, that society wouldn’t let him be in any other walk of life. Parker and Mackey see that man when they look at him, and that’s why he came back.

Parker feels none of this, for any of them.  But he’s caught in a web of conflicting obligations (my Celtic ancestors used to call them geasa and they’ve killed no end of tough guys). Another kind of prison.  Ed’s sense of obligation to him was a necessary factor in his escape from the actual prison he ended up in because of a confederate who acted as if his only obligation was to himself.  There’s no solution to this equation.  You just have to decide what feels right to you, and accept the consequences.  And never know if you’ve chosen correctly until it’s too late to do anything about it.

Ultimately the only answer to this conundrum is that Stark is a romantic, and Parker isn’t.  Let’s get back to the synopsis.

As romantic as it unquestionably would be to shoot their way into the jail, like the 1920’s heisters, or the Old West outlaws, Parker has a less sanguinary plan. He still has the card for the criminal attorney Claire got him.  A very capable shyster, Mr. Jonathan Li.  And if they can just get Brenda released on her own recognizance, the charges against her dropped, she can go on living  in the straight world, instead of being a fugitive like Parker and Ed.

Li knows he is now dealing with fugitives from the law, and as long as they don’t implicate him, and the check doesn’t bounce (or hell, just send cash), he’s got zero problems with helping them.  The problem lies with Darlene Johnson-Ross. She’s the one who spotted Brenda waiting in the car, recognized her blonde hair, called the law.  (I don’t accept Brenda is a blonde, it’s never been mentioned before now, but we can talk about that in the comments section.)

If this woman dropped her complaint, they’d have nothing to hold Brenda on, and Li could do the rest in his sleep.  But she has to drop it.  She can’t just disappear, conveniently and forever, or Brenda will be held on suspicion of conspiracy to commit murder.  Li knows who he’s talking to here, never doubt it.

What follows is probably my least favorite part of the book, that involves finding Johnson-Ross at her house, with her lover (the guy they almost robbed), and using a variety of threats (none of them terribly veiled) to convince her to go tell the police she made a mistake, and this is definitely not the same dame.  If she doesn’t, then they’ll kill her boyfriend.  It’s a bit hard to understand why she cares, given that he’s possibly more terrified of his wife finding out about them than he is of these three desperate criminals with guns, but who can explain it, who can tell you why, fools give you reasons, Freedman doesn’t die.  Turns out he makes really nice sandwiches, and Ed figures you don’t shoot a guy who feeds you.

This is the last prison they find themselves in, unable to leave her house until they know Brenda is out, wondering if the police will come by and check, which they do, but not seriously.  Williams makes his exit (in Freedman’s Infiniti) before they find out what happens, because seriously, he’s done his share and then some.  They never would have even found the house without somebody who knows the area.

(It’s a bit too cute, this part.  Too Dortmunder-esque, except you know that these guys actually can kill people.  Mackey is his usual jocular self, even helps Darlene with the dishes.  Freedman gets Stockholm Syndrome, starts identifying with his captors.  I’m not saying it couldn’t happen, it’s just a bit much that we spend more time on this hostage caper than on the robbery.  Well, anything for Brenda.)

Endgame.  Brenda’s been released, Li worked his magic.  She’s taking a cab to the airport.  Ed will rendezvous with her there–the cops don’t know his face. They’ll get the car they have in long-term parking, and drive out of state.  Of course the law is tailing her.  Parker can’t go with them.  He’s going to need another ride.

And who should he spot in a remote area of the airport but Detective Turley–you know, the one who talked about game theory so much.  They’ll get to talk about that some more.  Parker commandeers Turley and his vehicle.  Turley’s a pro, and he knows by this time Parker is no less professional on his side of the law. He wants to live to type up his report.  So he gets them past security, and they get the hell out of Dodge.

Bit of driving to do now.  Might as well chat to pass the time.  Turley mentions that even though he’s a state cop, the car they’re in belongs to the local police.  A few years back, there was a proposal floated to the city government–equip all the squad cars with location devices–so that if a car went missing, they could find it.  You know what the city fathers said?  “You boys are local law enforcement, you know exactly where you are.”  Turley’s having a good chuckle about that now. Parker is less amused.  He’d probably have had to kill Turley and find another car if they’d shelled out for that tech.  Turley’s not done gabbing, and Parker knows why.

Just as Parker had known what Turley was doing underneath his words back in Stoneveldt, he understood now what this cosy chat was all about.  Turley was a good cop, but he was also mortal.  His second job, if he could do it, was to bring Parker in, but his first job was to keep himself alive.  Talk with a man, exchange confidences with him, he’s less likely to pull the trigger if and when the time comes.  Like Mackey deciding to do it the more difficult way because Henry had made him lunch.

This wouldn’t work on Parker, but he doesn’t need Turley dead.  There’s a railroad town coming up.  Also a major truck stop.  He leaves Turley by the roadside, in the middle of nowhere, throwing his gun into a cornfield where he’ll take some time finding it (but won’t be humiliated by Parker having taken it away from him).  Parker ditches the police Plymouth, and looks for his ride out of this goddam flat state.

He has a pretty good idea of what he’s looking for, or rather, whom.   A couple in their 40’s or 50’s, who own and operate a big rig together.  More and more of those on the road now–must have been a fairly new trend back when this book was written.  (Parker, like his creator, never stops watching people–you never know what bit of information will come in handy).  They’ll invite him aboard just to have somebody to talk to, chat on the porch, so to speak.  A lone trucker wouldn’t want to risk it.  A couple seeks out company, to spice up their own relationship.

Then here they came.  He knew they were right the instant they walked out of the cafe.  Mid fifties, both overweight from sitting in the truck all the time, dressed alike in boots and jeans and windbreakers and black cowboy hats, they were obviously comfortable together, happy, telling each other stories. Parker rose and walked toward them, and they stopped, grinning at him, as though they’d expected him.

They had.  “I knew it,” the man said, and said to his wife, “Didn’t I tell you?”

“Well, it was pretty obvious,” she said.

Parker said, “You know I want a lift.”

Marty and Gail.  Quite possibly the nicest people Parker’s ever met, which I suppose isn’t the highest praise that can be given, but they’re pretty darn nice. They can get him as far as Baltimore.  He says he could walk home from Baltimore.  They’ve got a Sterling Aero Bullet Plus.  Probably not unlike this one. Don’t really know much about trucks.  I do know the drivers matter more than the trucks do.   At least until it’s all done with computers and GPS.  Watch your backs, Martys & Gails of the world.  Google Trucks is coming for you.

2006-sleeper-cab-sterling-003

Parker has a good story to tell them about how he lost his car and his money in Vegas, and there was a woman involved.  He doesn’t get into detail much about it.  They can fill in the blanks themselves.  All they know is that he’s headed for New Jersey.  Well, that’s all they know officially, put it that way.  Marty in particular knows more than he’s saying.

There’s a police roadblock coming up.  Marty tells Parker he doesn’t feel like dealing with it, so he’s going to take the scenic route, on the side roads.  Get back on the highway once they’re past the cops.  And he’s got a little story of his own to tell Parker.  He did time once.  Attempted robbery.  Served four years, which was the minimum.

“Four  years is a long minimum,” Parker said.

“Oh, you know it.”  Marty concentrated on the road awhile, then said, “I know there’s fellas belong in there, I know there’s fellas I’d prefer was in there, but after being in there myself I could never put a man in a cage, personally.  Never.”

“I know the feeling,” Parker said.

“If a man wants to learn from his mistakes, fine,” Marty said.  “You look at me.  You see the job I gave myself.  Coast-to-coast hauling.  You can’t get much farther from a four-man cage inside a six-hundred-man cage inside a four-thousand-man cage.”

Prisons within prisons within prisons.  But there’s always a way out, if you look hard enough.  And there’s people who’ll help you, if you ask.  The decent people of this earth.  The sane ones.  They do exist.

But Parker, I’m just wondering–what if  things turned out so that you had to kill these good people, who are helping you for no reason at all other than that they feel like it?  What if that was the only way you could stay free? Would you do it? Could you? I’m asking a question, Parker.  Answer me, damn you.  Silence. That figures.

They pass the roadblock, and Marty says the state troopers are just doing what they were told.  “They aren’t hunters.  They’re just boys doing a job.”   Maybe he knows what’s sitting next to him in the cab, while his wife sleeps peacefully in back.  Maybe not.  We don’t see Parker say goodbye to them.  Which means we don’t know if they were still alive when he left them–knowing what they do about him, where he came from, where he was headed.  We don’t even get that much of an answer to my question.  But Parker doesn’t kill when he doesn’t need to.  That I know.  He’s not one of us.

And Chapter 17 of Part Four is so short, I can type the whole damn thing.  Why not?

Claire rolled over when he walked into the room.  Her eyes gleamed in the darkness, but she didn’t say anything as she watched him move.  Out of his pocket and onto the dresser went the three Patek watches that were the only result of the jewel job.  He stripped and got into bed and then, folding into his arms, she said, “Gone a long time.”

“It felt like a long time.”

“I knew you’d be back,” she said.

“This time,” he said.

Just FYI, some Patek Phillipe & Co. watches sell for hundreds of thousands of dollars–some can even cost millions.  Probably a midwest wholesaler wouldn’t have the top of the line models, but Parker would have picked the best of the bunch available, and he can find a fence for three watches easily enough.  He really does not like to walk away empty-handed from a job.  Neither did Donald E. Westlake.

What I walk away from this book with is a sense that the walls are starting to close in on Parker, in a way we haven’t seen before.  Yes, he got away, but the law caught him, photographed his new face, connected it to his old fingerprints.  He’s got a few more killings to his official credit, not that he needed any more to go away for life.  He’s still having a harder and harder time finding jobs he can pull in this strange new world of electronic cash, electronic surveillance, ever-faster information sharing between far-flung police departments.

He still has to work with unreliable people sometimes, which creates points of vulnerability–and when he works with people he can trust, because they trust him, that creates other points of vulnerability, perhaps even more dangerous.

He’s free, but it’s not unqualified freedom, liberty without caveats.  I suppose there’s no such thing.  He’s certainly got a wider range of amenities in that house, with Claire (a fine amenity in herself).   But he has to keep paying for them.  He has to keep hunting, like any predator.  And sooner or later, every predator becomes the prey.  Nobody runs forever.  Yes, this is foreshadowing. Three more books left.  Which can, arguably, be seen as one long book.  Or one multi-faceted work of art.

The next Parker novel was published two years after this one, and by all rights, I should get to it in a few more weeks.  But I’m going to break with my usual habit of reviewing books in the order in which they were published.  Two rather unsatisfying standalone books are next, neither of them books Westlake will be remembered for, though both with things to recommend them.  Then a whole lot of Dortmunder: novels, novellas, short stories, workout routines.

And then we’ll get to the defacto conclusion of the Parker Saga, along with the very last Dortmunder, and the very last Westlake novel ever to be published.  The end, in fact, of the primary literary oeuvre of Donald E. Westlake, hard and painful as that is to believe.  And by extension, the end of my needing to publish an article here every week or so.  One prison I’m feeling rather ambiguous about breaking out of.  But there’s always another one waiting outside. Right?

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Filed under Donald Westlake novels, Parker Novels, Richard Stark

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, mainly made cobbled from 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: Plunder Squad, Part 2

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Does it matter?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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