Tag Archives: Goldfinger

First Read: Forever And A Death

The last Donald E. Westlake novel ever published.  Is what this is going down as.  Whatever its merits as a book may be, that one quality eclipses all others.  If you, like me, have developed a habit, worked your way through everything else on the list, once you’ve read this one, it’s over.  No more Westlake.  Okay, there’s sleaze paperbacks of variously dubious provenance, there’s uncollected short stories, there’s nonfiction articles, and there’s an archive in Boston you could visit under close guard, or possibly break into late at night; rather fitting, when you think about it.   But really.  This is it.

So is it any good?  To the true completist, this question can seem fairly inconsequential.  Mr. Westlake wrote far too many books for all of them to be polished gems, and he knew that better than anyone.  That so many of them are good, and frequently much more than that,  attests to his abilities, but I’d say an even more telling testimonial is how avidly many of us read even his less distinguished work, because on his very worst day he was capable of producing unique thought-provoking stories, and the more we read, the better we understand him.  His failures often tell us more than his successes.  But this, I would say, is neither.   Or maybe it’s both.  Somewhere in between.

I’m not here to review it this time, because first of all, I never review a Westlake novel I haven’t read at least twice.  The way I review these books is to take them apart, piece by piece, looking in depth at the story and characters, typing out quote after quote, so that (I like to think) if all copies of that book were to disappear, you could get a pretty good feeling for it just from my review.

I have said in the past that nobody should come here and read my reviews if they haven’t read the books first.  Well, hardly anyone has read this one, because it isn’t on sale until June.  I got an advance reviewer’s copy from Charles Ardai at Hard Case Crime.  I will not abuse that confidence.  Not until several months after the book comes out.  Not until you at least have been given the option of reading it.  I mean, it’s not going to be much of a discussion if it’s just me and Greg Tulonen, and Greg hasn’t read the edited for publication version yet, I don’t think.

The sole point of getting an advance copy (other than impatience) is to write a review, so that people can decide whether or not they want to read the book.  That’s never really been what TWR is about, since if you’re here, you’re already hooked.  You don’t need me to tell you a new Westlake is a big deal.  You don’t need me to decide what books you want to buy.  But you might still be interested in what I think.  God knows why.

Let me talk first about the actual physical volume, which is what I read.  A glossy paperback, eight inches high, five across, and one thick.  463 pages, but just 435 of those are the book itself, so it’s not his longest novel by any means.  Westlake’s original 610 page manuscript has been trimmed down by about 10%, according to Ardai–mainly repetitive material, descriptions of restaurants, some local history relating to the various settings.  Things that needed to be more fully digested into the narrative as a whole, and probably could have been if Westlake hadn’t been discouraged from doing any more work on the book, and if he’d had a sympathetic editor to work with.

There is a substantial and fascinating afterward from Jeff Kleeman, the producer who hired Westlake to write several story treatments for the project that eventually became Tomorrow Never Dies.  Because, as he tells us right upfront, he was as avid a fan of Westlake novels as he was of 007 yarns as a kid.  He wanted to see how the two would go together.  Better than one might think, not as well as one might hope, is the short answer.

I’d have bought this book just for his description of Westlake’s creative process, and this I absolutely must quote from.  If he ever gives up on this major motion picture producing gig, Mr. Kleeman would make a passing good book blogger.

I’m fascinated by how ideas take shape and how writers write.  Some writers outline extensively, some start with an ending and work backward, some write a bunch of scenes in no particular order and with no obvious connection and then eventually pick a few of the best and build a story around them.  None of these were Don’s method  He relied on what he called “narrative push.”

Don would get an idea, usually for a beginning, an opening scene, something like, “What if there’s a bank robbery in progress and the getaway car can’t find a parking space in front of the bank? (This was the idea Don said was the spark for writing the first of his Dortmunder novels.)  Don would start from a premise like that and just write, without any plan for where he was going, trusting that eventually he’d end up with a story.  He told me there was only one story he ever started that he couldn’t puzzle out a way to finish.  It involved insurance fraud and after six weeks Don realized he’d written his characters into such a tight corner he was unable to keep them moving all the way to a resolution.  I hope one day Hard Case Crime will unearth the manuscript and we’ll get to see Don’s version of an impossible story.

Pretty sure Mr. Westlake was referring to The Scared Stiff, which he started writing after he finished The Ax, put aside, then published under a pseudonym in 2002, and I’ll be unearthing my copy soon enough so I can review it.  That’s about insurance fraud, and it’s another one of his books he was sort of cordially advised not to proceed with by people he trusted, because it wasn’t what people expected of him.   Maybe he was talking about an earlier attempt in this vein, but the dates match up pretty well, and how many insurance fraud novels was he going to write?

So as Kleeman explains, he loved the ideas Westlake came up with, and some were used in the finished film.  Most significantly, Pierce Brosnan owed Mr. Westlake a drink for getting to work with Michelle Yeoh, because it was Westlake’s idea that Bond partner with a female Chinese agent, work with her and then play of course, because Bond James Bond and Westlake Donald Westlake.

But once it became clear that Goldeneye, Mr. Kleeman’s first Bond, was a hit that had given new life to the franchise, and the studio wanted to move ahead fast with the next one, the scheduling got tight, and Westlake’s process didn’t work so well when you didn’t already know in advance exactly what the story would be (like an adaptation of a Jim Thompson novel). Kleeman also mentions Westlake’s well known aversion to adapting his own work, which I think was not because he lacked objectivity, but because he didn’t want to mutilate his own children at the passing whims of some suits in Burbank.

They couldn’t know how well his Bond concepts would work until he’d turned them into a script using narrative push, and if the script didn’t work, it’d be too late to try again, and pre-production costs would keep accumulating.  So that’s why Westlake didn’t write the screenplay for Tomorrow Never Dies, and if you look closely at what we’re being told here, you can see why he never really clicked as a screenwriter, except on very specific types of projects, where his process could be made to work.  A writer on a studio picture is not a freelance artist for hire.  He’s a (very well paid) cog in a machine.  Ask Faulkner and Fitzgerald, neither of whom ever wrote a decent script in their lives.  (Ever see Land of the Pharaohs?) 

So there’s plenty more from Kleeman, and it’s all worth reading, but that’s just the dessert.  The book is the main course, and the book came about because Westlake had developed this idea that he knew the producers wouldn’t use, and he felt like it had potential.  There was no script, but there was a treatment he could turn into a novel.

He’d done something like this before, twice.  First time with Who Stole Sassi Manoon?, where the film had never been made, and he’d retained the rights.  That was probably his weakest novel–I think there actually was a finished script there, and he’d been taking a lot of notes from the producers no doubt, and trying to tailor it to the rather puerile standards of Mid-60’s light comedy.   It was probably not a strong script to begin with, and he struggled getting it to work as a book, but good bet it was better than the movie would have been.

Second time, he wrote the original screenplay for Cops and Robbers, which was turned into a modestly decent 70’s comedy/thriller, but he thought the director, a former film editor, just didn’t know how to be the boss of everybody, and the many good scenes in it just kind of lie there, instead of jumping off the screen at you.

He’d retained the rights to novelize his screenplay, and he did, and the result was one of his best and most original heist books, very focused and unconventional in its approach.  Much better than the film, which thankfully flopped, so that people who read the book wouldn’t have the masterful plot twists spoiled for them.  You do see a certain incompatibility of interests between Mr. Westlake and Hollywood at times, but they both got something out of the relationship, which is why it never really ended.

So this was his third attempt to turn a film into a book, but unlike the previous two, it wasn’t in the heist genre.  And he was told, respectfully but firmly, by people whose input he valued, that it just wouldn’t sell–which might have been true–and that it didn’t have the patented Westlake touch with regards to character and story–a reaction I can understand, while still not agreeing with it.

It has most of what we read him for, other than his humor, which is on the down low here, and for good reason. But at many points, and particularly in the early chapters, it feels like a preliminary sketch that needs to be filled in.  Well, a preliminary sketch by a famous artist can sell for millions at auction.  Isn’t Donald E. Westlake a famous artist?  And what’s the one thing all famous artists have in common?  Their work gets more valuable after they die.

Honestly, if he had filled it in, he still might not have gotten to publish it.  He’d already had his shot at making this general type of book work, several times. One was Ex Officio, a political thriller, longer and much less action-packed than this, written under the pseudonym Timothy J. Culver (the only one of Westlake’s pseudonyms he publicly killed off, in a mock panel discussion between his most famous literary personas).   I assume that did decent sales, since it was reprinted in paperback–but under the title Power Play, so probably nothing stellar.  It’s also a better book than this–a finished work.  He had good editorial relationships at M. Evans & Co., where many of his best books under his own name would later be published.

He wrote Kahawa under his own name, but I rather suspect Culver had a hand in it, the rumors of his death being much exaggerated.  That was for Viking, where he had terrible editorial relationships, and very little support.  That was at least outwardly a heist story, close enough to his usual fictive haunts that he could get away with making most of it about Africa, about Africans of all races, about various merry wars between the sexes, about brutal venal dictators and those who serve them, about the way we in the west look the other way when it comes to human rights abuses in the third world, because there’s so much money to be made there.  And about identity, because everything he wrote was about that.   It was a book he could be justly proud of.  And it sold like purest shit.

When you write the kind of book that’s supposed to be a best seller, at least close to it–and it isn’t, not even close–you are damaging your own professional profile.  As true in publishing as in the movies–you’re only as good as your last project.  Perhaps feeling encouraged by the extraordinary success of The Ax, he wanted to try once more to break out of the confines of what people thought he was.  He tried with the book that became The Comedy is Finished (again about a celebrity kidnapping, but no comic capering this time), and that became the second novel of his to be published after his death.

Though many disagree, I think it’s one of the best books he ever wrote, a searing look at the political and generational divide in America that existed a long time before the internet and social media, and not just at Woodstock.  And I don’t know it would have done any better than Kahawa if it had been published back when it was written.  Westlake in this vein has a problem–he’s too commercial for the intellectuals, and too damn smart for the people who just want a good read.  (Honestly, sometimes I think he’s too smart for the intellectuals as well.  They’re like “Who does this guy  think he is?”  Well, that’s the question, isn’t it?)

Memory, written in the early 60’s, was his one attempt at a book that didn’t fit any commercial cubbyhole at all, and it’s a dark brooding masterpiece that can haunt you for weeks after reading it, and we’ll never know how many more like that he might have had in him, or whether it would have been worth losing all the books we know him for to find out.   But knowing he had the potential to write that, we can’t help but wonder.

Writers build their own ghettos and live in them.  Westlake wrote genre books, books with a defined audience, never a very large one, but never too small either.  He couldn’t try to write The Great American Novel, as Philip Roth literally did, and it turned out to be about baseball, and it’s not that great, but it’s American.  And a novel.  If Westlake had his agent submit something different to some highbrow publisher like Knopf or FarrarStraussGiroux, what reaction would he get?  “Oh yes, the Dortmunder fellow, very droll, did this get into the wrong envelope somehow?”  Far easier for the highbrow author to explore the genre slums, and so many have, but it rarely works out.  Grass is always greener.

He doesn’t want to let this Bond story he slaved over, did more than his usual amount of research on, go to waste.  And there’s a larger problem he has been trying to crack for ages now, how to write an interesting long novel that isn’t a mystery, and will sell.  This is a story he wrote for James Freakin’ Bond, which should make it commercially viable.  But it can’t be about James Freakin’ Bond.  For obvious legal considerations, but also personal ones.  If you want my honest opinion, Westlake never believed in Bond.  He enjoyed the movies, maybe even some of the novels (I’m guessing there was a lot of tongue-clucking and eye-rolling when he read Fleming), but he never believed in any of it.

Not because of the gadgets, or the glamor, or the girls, or the utter disregard for gravity, but because Bond is an Organization Man.  He’s the Organization Man.  He can twit his superiors from now ’til Doomsday (which in his world comes every other week).   Doesn’t mean a thing.  He puts on a suit, and he goes to the office, and he flirts with the secretary, and he does what he’s told.  He kills on command.  He’s not a Westlake hero.  He never could be.  Doesn’t mean he’s not interesting.  He’s interesting the way Batman is interesting (and Westlake liked Batman too, almost wrote for the comic once).  But you know who’d be much more interesting to Donald E. Westlake than Bond himself?  Bond villains.

The thing about Westlake heroes is that none of them are, really.  Heroes.  Oh there are exceptions, but always very qualified and somewhat self-conscious ones, and even in those stories, the bad guys are usually a lot more interesting.  The characters we remember Westlake for are thieves, killers, cads, rogues, rascals.  Plus the occasional befuddled naif, picaresquely stumbling into adulthood.  Hard Cases, for the most part (hey, bloggers can do product placement too).

So when these villainous heroes (heroic villains?), who know themselves, come up against out-and-out villains who don’t, the result is predictable.  But suppose ordinary decent people, with considerable courage and some applicable skills, but absolutely no experience with the cloak and dagger shtik, came up against someone who is, for want of a better word, evil–and brilliant–and filthy rich.  And he’s got a plan.  That will make him still richer, and a whole lot of people dead.  A Bond story with a Bond villain–but no Bond.

No SMERSH or SPECTRE either, because Westlake would feel, and rightly so I think, that the most interesting Bond villains in the best stories all worked for themselves.  Auric Goldfinger.  Hugo Drax.  Francisco Scaramanga.  Blofeld was more interesting as a figure lurking Sauron-like in the shadows than as an active antagonist.  Who is this guy?  What’s his motivation?  World domination?  Pfaugh.  No evil scheme Blofeld irrationally blabbed to 007 before once again failing to kill him ever resonated half so well as Goldfinger’s epic rant–

(I can imagine Westlake standing up and applauding, which might have gotten him some odd looks in the theater, but he’d be used to that.)

Shakespeare knew the virtues of a great villain, and so did Lorenzo Da Ponte, and so did John Milton.   A villain of this type is a rebel, after all.  Somebody who refuses to bow to the established order of things.    It may be necessary to thwart him or her, but we can still appreciate the ingenuity of the scheme, the audacity of ambition that inspired it.

Of all Bond villains, Goldfinger is the only one 007 personally compliments.  He’s as delighted with the genius on display as any of us are.  As we are delighted by the fictional Richard III, or Iago.  While still knowing they must, in the end, be done to death.  Though Westlake was notorious for having his villainous protagonists get away with all kinds of things, up to and including the social destruction of an entire anti-social planet.  (See, not even going to give you that much of a spoiler.)

Anarchaos may well be the book most similar to this one in the Westlake canon, and that’s no accident.  Curt Clark is very much in the mix here as well, though this one doesn’t have the noir atmosphere, the hard-bitten first person narrator, ala Hammett.  The name of the villain here is Richard Curtis.  Richard, for Richard Stark.  Curtis, for Curt Clark.  And just as Rolf Malone used carefully placed explosive charges to put an end to the world that murdered his brother–well, that would be telling.

So Richard Stark is here, and Timothy J. Culver, and Curt Clark.  I can’t for the life of me detect any Tucker Coe.  The whimsy of Westlake is mainly missing, and I think that’s perhaps at least partly why people who read the manuscript complained that it wasn’t like him.  Of course, he wasn’t planning to publish it as a Westlake.  Knox Burger, his agent of the time, said in a letter Greg Tulonen read, that he was confounded by the pseudonym Westlake had suggested using.  I find myself wondering if the pseudonym might have been Richard Curtis.  Same way the Samuel Holt novels are accredited to Samuel Holt.  The fact that Curtis isn’t the narrator argues against that.  But somehow, one would like to know.

He wanted so much to not have to be Westlake all the time.  To get away from the established perceptions of him as a writer, to be free of that burden of expectations.  The publishing industry simply couldn’t accommodate him in this way any more.  So he put the book aside, and while it’s a finished work, I think we have to say that it’s also an unpolished one.  But in many ways, that just makes it more interesting, to those of us who want to better understand his creative process, and how he was able to write so much, so well, and so multifariously.

I read the early chapters with a slight sense of disappointment.   Then the pace began to build.  I found myself turning the pages faster, needing to know the outcome.  I felt the book was out of balance in some ways, but I wondered if maybe that was the point.  There are many protagonists here, some more interesting than others, none entirely good or evil, all imperfectly knowing themselves, though the two most clearly heroic characters both end up knowing themselves better as the story goes on.  Two of the protagonists are gay, and a couple–and two of the most serious obstacles to Curtis’s plans.  Not comic relief this time.  Well, there is no comic relief this time.

There is an Oddjob, though.  That was maybe the thing I found most fascinating.  We spend quite a lot of time in his head. Westlake must have really liked Goldfinger (he probably got the idea for The Green Eagle Score from it, and greatly improved on it).   Essentially, the improbable and largely mindless henchmen one finds in a Bond story are rationalized here, given souls and motivations and inner lives, comprehensible pragmatic reasons for their loyalty to the main villain (who feels no loyalty to anyone but himself).  But nobody gets to decapitate anybody else with a bowler hat.  Oh well.  Can’t have everything.

Anything else I might say?  Not yet.  Let me read it again, and a while after you’ve all had the opportunity to appreciate what this book has to offer, we’ll come back to it.  And decide how high to rank it.  I honestly don’t think I’ll place it as high as the other two unpublished works we’ve seen since Westlake’s death.  But I wouldn’t be entirely surprised if it outsells both of them.  We’ll see.

And there is a message to it, I think.  Aside from the identity puzzles one always finds in Westlake.  It would read something along the lines of “There are real Bond villains in this ever-changing world in which we live in.  But there is no James Bond.  It’s up to us to stop them.  Or join them.  Or be destroyed and/or ruled by them.  There are no other choices.”

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Filed under Donald Westlake film adaptations, Donald Westlake novels, Richard Stark, Screenplays by Donald E. Westlake, Timothy J. Culver

Review: The Green Eagle Score

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She said in answer to his question, “His name is Parker. I don’t know what his first name is, nobody said. I don’t like him.”

“Why not?”

“He’s–I don’t know, I look at him and I think he’s evil. But that isn’t right, exactly, I don’t think he’s evil. I mean, I don’t think he’d ever be cruel or anything like that, for the fun of it. I wouldn’t worry about leaving Pam around him, for instance. But–I know.”

“Yes?”

“He wouldn’t hurt Pam, but he wouldn’t care about her either. If something bad happened to her, he wouldn’t be pleased by it, but he wouldn’t try to do anything to help her. Unless he saw some gain for himself in it.”

“You mean he seems cold?”

“He doesn’t care. There’s no emotion there.”

“Oh well,” Dr. Godden said, and even though she wasn’t looking at him she could hear the gentle smile in his voice, “everyone has emotions. We all have them–you, me, everyone. Even this man Parker. Maybe he has them bottled up more than most people, that’s all.”

As you’ve probably noticed, I like comparing Westlake’s books to other books, particularly when I think I’ve found one that Westlake used as a model for his own.  But some books of his are so unique, it’s hard for me to find any real parallel.  This is one of those.  In terms of its story, its characters, I don’t know of any book that strongly influenced The Green Eagle Score. Maybe you do.  But I think we all know this is not the first or the most famous novel about a master criminal robbing a U.S. military base.

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But damned if I can find any similarity other than the idea of pulling a heist on Uncle Sam. Maybe the novel (and later the film) gave Westlake the germ of that idea, maybe not.  But the story he told could not have been more different–and far as I’m concerned, better.   Certainly more believable, not that one should ever judge Ian Fleming by that standard.  That wouldn’t be cricket.

Fleming wrote pure fantasy–Richard Stark is certainly fantasizing as well, but in a more grounded, tangible, ‘maybe this could actually happen’ sort of way.  Unlike Fleming, he writes from the criminal’s perspective, and his mastermind is not a bizarre wealthy egotist trying to prove a point, but a hard-eyed workman doing his job.  And one more thing–Fleming did some research on Fort Knox, I’m sure, but nobody’s expecting a plausible heist out of him–I can’t find any mention of his ever having been there.  Westlake spent several years of his life on Air Force bases.   He went into this one already knowing much of what he needed to know.

The United States Air Force had existed as a separate branch of the military for less than a decade when Westlake joined up.  Serving in peacetime, his military service seems to have consisted mainly of short stints on bases in Germany and elsewhere–flying back and forth over the Atlantic, doing drudge work, writing in his spare time.  And dealing with authority figures of varying types and qualities on a daily basis, because that’s what military life is. He doesn’t seem to have made many (if any) lasting friendships there.  If his unpublished autobiography ever sees the light of day, maybe we’ll learn more about that part of his life.

But for now, we can look at his fiction, and notice how many of his characters have had some military experience. Parker himself served in the Army in World War II (apparently joining up in his early teens, which isn’t as implausible as it sounds), but was discharged from the service for black-market activities.  Grofield was in the army.  Ray Kelly had just gotten out of the service at the start of 361. Samuel Holt was an M.P. before he became a cop, then an actor, then a reluctant detective. Just a few examples out of dozens.  He liked to use that as a starting point for his heroes.

But Westlake never wrote a single book centered around an active-service military man (or woman), unless you count A Girl Called Honey, a ‘sleaze’ novel he co-wrote with Lawrence Block.  Westlake and Block each created a character to vie for the affections of the titular seductress, and Westlake’s was a scrawny Air Force grunt named Richie Parsons, who hates the Air Force, steals from his fellow servicemen, and then goes AWOL, which is how he meets the aforementioned seductress.  I don’t think it’s a self-portrait, exactly, but no doubt Westlake was expressing his own feelings there–he wasn’t impressed with the USAF, or most of the people in it. To be a military man is to be a cog in a machine.  It’s no place for an individualist.  I’m sure George Patton would have disagreed, but of course he was running the machine.

One other thing–we now know, thanks to The Getaway Car, that Westlake was arrested for stealing a microscope while in college. Given his age, seems plausible he had a bit of counseling after that experience–maybe saw a psychiatrist or two.  And I’d guess the Air Force had some psychological screening in place by the time he was there, though probably not much.

There’s a different kind of authority figure–the ‘headshrinker’–somebody who pries into your deepest thoughts and emotions, and in some cases tells you (in that prototypical passive aggressive ‘how did that make you feel?’ sort of way) what’s going on inside your noodle–trying to fit you into his little Freudian templates.  And how do you think that made Westlake feel? Not very well-disposed towards psychiatrists.

We’ve already seen his attitude towards that profession in Pity Him Afterwards.  And we’re going to see it again here.  And yet there’s a lot of very good psycho-analysis in this book, albeit applied to some less than noble ends. Westlake might have been more impressed than he let on.

The book opens with a classic bit of Starkian prose, though we’re still missing the “When such-and-such happened, Parker did something” opening of the first eight books.

Parker looked at the beach and there was a guy in a black suit standing there, surrounded by all the bodies in bathing suits.  He was standing near Parker’s gear, not facing anywhere in particular, and he looked like a rip in the picture.  The hotel loomed up behind him, white and windowed, the Puerto Rican sun beat down, the sea foamed white on the beach, and he stood there like a homesick mortician.

That mortician is Marty Fusco, a fellow heister, who just finished a stretch in prison and is looking for a quick score to get back on his feet. The character is a lot like Lempke from The Rare Coin Score, but unlike his predecessor, he hasn’t lost his nerve–just his wife, Ellen.  She divorced him when he was in prison, and eventually took up with Stan Devers, a handsome cocky young gent currently finishing a stretch in (wait for it) the Air Force. He works in the payroll office.

Stan’s stationed at a base outside Monequois–a recurring fictional burg somewhere in upstate New York we see referenced in various Westlake books, but this can’t be the same Monequois we saw in The Seventh. That was a college town, around the size of Binghamton–and no way Parker would ever go back there to pull a job after the events of that book.  So Westlake is just reusing the name, as he already had several times before, because he likes it (I think he made it up himself–it’s supposed to be an old Indian name, but there never was any such tribe as the Monequois, in New York or anywhere else).  This version of Monequois is a small sleepy place, dominated by the much larger military base outside it. It’ll be waking up with a start in the near future.

Anyway, Fusco has a kid with Ellen, three year old Pamela, and he came back to see her, found Ellen was with Devers, and being an easy-going sort of guy, ended up becoming chums with him. And much to Ellen’s dismay, they ended up hatching a scheme together–the payroll for the base is huge, and all cash.  Marty thinks there’s a job here, but he needs Parker to plan it.

Parker’s response is predictably wary–as it was when the Copper Canyon caper was pitched to him in The Score, but something about the way he expresses his incredulity doesn’t sound very Parker-like.

Parker broke in, saying, “Wait a while. This is the job you came down here to offer me? Go steal an Army payroll right off the post?”

“It isn’t Army, Parker, it’s Air Force. And besides, they–”

“What do you mean it isn’t Army? Have they got a fence around the post?”

“Base, they call it a base.”

“Have they got a fence around it? And gates? And armed sentries on the gates?”

“Parker, it can be done. There’s better than four hundred grand in there, Parker, twice a month, ours for the taking.”

“Yours for the taking,” Parker told him. “I don’t take money away from five thousand armed men.”

“It isn’t five thousand armed men, Parker. Christ, you know what Stan calls the Air Force? The saluting civil service, he says. You know what they carry on their practice alerts? Empty carbines. They don’t even get bullets, for Christ’s sake.”

“Somebody’s got bullets,” Parker told him. “Somewhere on that post, base, whatever they call it, somewhere there’s somebody doesn’t want us to take that four hundred grand. I’ll leave that somebody alone.”

A great bit of dialogue, but Parker doesn’t talk like that.  It’s too wordy, and too funny.  Parker doesn’t kvetch.  It sounds to me like John Dortmunder trying to get born.  It wasn’t long after this that Westlake started work on a Parker novel that kept veering into comedy–which for this character, simply doesn’t work.

Parker remembers his own wartime stint in the military, when everybody was on full alert, and it takes time for him to accept this isn’t the same thing at all.  But he wants to work again, even though he doesn’t have to yet, and so he tells Claire he’s going to check this thing out.  She doesn’t want to know the specifics–and she doesn’t want him to leave–she thinks he may not be coming back this time. They have a tense little discussion, and he leaves anyway.

How much time has passed since the last book?  Salsa’s name gets brought up later, and we’re told he died a couple of years ago–based on what we see at the start of The Rare Coin Score, Parker spent just a few restless weeks of womanizing between the end of the Cockaigne job Salsa died on, and his first meeting with Claire–who became his permanent traveling companion two months after the events of the previous book.

So flush with cash, and greatly enjoying his new steady girl, Parker has taken well over a year off–his longest break since we’ve known him–and yet he and Claire still have a very passionate sex life.  He doesn’t need to pull a job to get it up anymore. Claire changed that for him. But he still needs to work–nobody can change that–and something about this job intrigues him.  The challenge of it–how sweet it would be to take that money away from the U.S. military.  Claire had a point about him–he does like to fight society. It brings out the artist in him.

Devers meets them at the airport with his maroon Pontiac, and they drive upstate–Fusco has been raving about this kid, how smart and on-the-ball he is, how he’ll be a great recruit to The Profession, and Parker thinks he may be right about that–Devers is already a pretty accomplished thief.  He’s clearly been embezzling from the Air Force–nice car, fancy duds, a charge account at Lord & Taylor’s in New York City (ah yes, I remember it well).

Expensive tastes, no love for daily routine or bosses, a maverick streak, nerve to spare–yeah, Devers is the type.  But does he have everything it takes? Well, we know he’s got a cool car–probably a lot like this–

1965-Pontiac-GTO-Hardtop-Fully-Restored

Parker checks into a motel outside Monequois, in an even tinier town called Malone–and see, this is one reason I do these reviews chronologically. If we hadn’t just been looking at Anarchaos, would you pick up on Parker staying in a town with the same name as the protagonist of a book that came out the same year as this one?  I never did before (and this is my fourth time reading this book). Westlake liked to make these little meta-textual references that hardly anyone but him would ever notice.

Parker meets Ellen Fusco–and why did Westlake keep coming back to variations on that name, Elly, Ellie, etc?  She is not a happy person, and it’s hard to blame her.  She had a bad relationship with her strict parents, married Marty as an act of rebellion, only to see him wind up in prison, right after she got pregnant.  She’s attractive, still young, and has hooked up with an even younger guy, who she thinks is husband material (not a good judge of character, is Ellen), and now the first husband is back, luring her new guy into a life of crime.  She was with Marty long enough to absorb the heisting ethos–don’t talk to the law. She won’t squeal on them.  Not intentionally.

But she’s not happy , and she wants everybody to know about it.  Particularly Parker.  Who of course she’s attracted to, even though she hates his guts.  And who does she talk to about all these conflicting emotions?  Her shrink, Dr. Godden.  Who is very interested in what she has to say about this impending robbery, and the four hundred thousand dollars it could possibly net.

As Parker, Marty & Stan scope out the base, come up with a plan, assemble a solid string, we alternate between chapters where they do all this and chapters with Ellen talking to Dr. Godden about it–he encourages her to participate more, involve herself, be present for all their planning sessions–it’ll be therapeutic for her.   She’ll realize her anxieties are unfounded.  Everything’s going to be just fine.  As long as she keeps telling him all about it.

“Perhaps on Wednesday,” he said, “you’ll feel like talking about the robbery again.  Perhaps you’ll understand your feelings better then.”

“I’ll talk about it now,” she said. “Now that I understand this, I want to talk about it, honestly.”

“There’s no time now,” he said, and his voice didn’t sound quite as sympathetic as usual. “We’ll see what happens on Wednesday.”

Now she did feel guilty.  She’d been keeping the plan from Dr. Godden for no reason, making him feel she didn’t trust him, causing a rift between them just when she needed him the most. “I’ll tell you the whole thing on Wednesday,” she promised.

“If you feel like it,” he said.

(Sidebar: Amazingly, in the 1960’s, Dr. Godden might  have been within his rights to not divulge this impending armed robbery to the police.  It wasn’t until the late 60’s/early 70’s that certain cases led to the passage of state laws creating exemptions to patient/doctor privilege–like a patient telling a doctor about a violent crime that had not yet been committed.  And since Ellen wasn’t actively participating in the crime, and the heisters would ideally prefer not to hurt anybody in the commission of said crime–it’s a bit of a grey area.   Psychiatrists committing crimes based on inside information from patients, not so much.)

This is the tenth Parker novel, and we know the score by now, which is to say we know somebody’s always trying to score off Parker’s score.  This time it’s Godden, who (once we’re inside his head) turns out to be a man in a pretty desperate situation, due mainly to personal weakness.  He keeps marrying women who are only interested in his money (judging by his physical description, there’s not much else to be interested in), and as they kept spending it all, he kept cutting ethical corners to make up the shortfall–writing prescriptions he shouldn’t have, facilitating illegal abortions that went wrong (Roe v. Wade is still about six or seven years off), and he got caught, which brought an end to his lucrative Manhattan practice.

He ended up in Monequois, still licensed, but not making nearly enough to support an ex-wife, a current wife, and a mistress.  And now he’s being blackmailed by someone who knows about his past indiscretions.  He wants to escape the whole sorry mess, but how?  Ellen Fusco presents him with the answer to his problems.  He just has to recruit a few accomplices, and they’ll heist the heist.  But he doesn’t know any professional thieves, and even if he did they’d demand their cut, and he wants the whole pile for himself.

So he recruits two of his patients.   The deeply disturbed Roger St. Cloud, a 22 year old rebel without a clue, who dreams about being inside gun barrels pointed at his controlling father’s head; and a big passive pliable lunkhead named Ralph Hochberg, who Godden convinces that he needs to do something assertive, like steal money from armed robbers.  Godden has betrayed every aspect of his professional identity, and his personal identity was never much to start with.  For all the supposed amorality of Richard Stark, I find a very strong sense of alternate morality in him–in his world, people are punished, with extreme severity, for the crime of not knowing who they are.

Several chapters are devoted to Devers showing Parker the base, interpreting its culture–in many ways, it feels like a college campus–most of the people there are attending classes of one kind or another. There’s a movie theater, there are restaurants, even bus lines to take you around. Most of the men are out of uniform most of the time. We never see a plane, though they do have them there. Parker quickly realizes this isn’t the armed camp that he’d envisioned. These people are as soft as The Outfit–maybe softer. They’re not prepared to deal with somebody like him.

They’re more on their toes than they would normally be, because of a recent sting operation–an inspector got past the guards and planted several symbolic ‘bombs’ in the shape of bricks, just to demonstrate how poor their security was. But so many people have to go in and out of the base every day. No matter how carefully the guards are briefed, they can’t help but get bored and caught up in the daily routine. The bigger and busier the installation, the less secure it is. Well, we know that now, right?

Before they head for the base, Devers admits he’s got the jitters–Parker says most guys in this business do–but not him.

He wasn’t boasting, it was the truth. The situation they were going into tonight would only make him colder and colder, harder and harder, surer and surer. He knew everything was organized, he knew the way it was supposed to come off, the step-by-step working out of the prepared script, and he was like a cold-blooded stage manager on opening night; no jitters, just a cold hard determination that everything would happen the way it was supposed to happen. He knew that the others, the actors, were all atremble, but that wasn’t for him. Stage managers don’t tremble.

This seems more like a metaphor Grofield would resort to–Parker normally has no use for metaphors of any kind. Is this the way Parker thinks, or just the way Stark is interpreting his thoughts for us?

He seems a bit more human in this book. Waiting for the job to start, he’s surprised to find himself thinking about Claire, wanting to get back to her, take her to the casino in San Juan, where she invariably loses fifty bucks playing craps, then wants to go right back to their room to make love. He doesn’t live entirely in the here and now anymore. Part of him is always with her. And yet, as we’ve seen, when he’s with her, part of him is always looking for the next job. Like I said–more human than he used to be. But still a wolf down deep. A wolf with a mate.  Though described as a panther at one point in this book.  Stop screwing with my metaphor, Stark!

The plan involves going in during a period of peak traffic, right around 5:00pm, when the AP’s (Air Police) at the gate are under pressure to avoid a bottleneck. They disguise themselves (in gold tunics no less) as ‘Ernie Seven and the Four Score’–a dance band. They have a letter forged on stationary Devers obtained, saying they’ve been engaged to play at the Officer’s Club–and the Major in charge will be most displeased if they are late. Works like a charm.

They have to hang around until midnight to make their move–they get dinner, meet up with Devers, and catch a movie–twice. Parker pays no attention to the movie either time. He couldn’t tell you what it was about if he saw it a hundred times.  Just light, color, sound–nothing else. Some stage manager he’d make.

Midnight comes–there’s just a sliver of the new moon in the sky. They take out the guards at the payroll office–badly wounding one in the process, but raising no alarm. There’s six of them–Parker recruited Philly Webb, Jake Kengle, and Bill Stockton for the string. Solid pros, who do their job perfectly. It all goes off exactly the way Parker planned, except for this one guard who had to play cowboy and go for his gun, making Kengle shoot him–they hope he won’t die. That brings down more heat. They bandage his wounds. And leave him there. Some things you can’t control.

Before he got the call about this job, Kengle was trying to sell encyclopedias door to door.  Another element that shows up in the first Dortmunder book–many of the Stark heisters are very human, but that chapter about Kengle, who plays a pretty minor role in the story, almost seems superfluous in this context–bits of Westlake breaking through the Stark facade. Something about this story is making it harder for him to be Stark all the time.

They breeze back past the gate, back in their gold tunics, in a short bus with specially painted banners on it, and almost 400 large hidden under their musical instruments. The hideout is an abandoned hunting lodge, not far at all from the base–but Parker and Webb lay a false trail, making it seem like they crossed over into Canada. Devers heads back to Ellen’s house.  Fusco, Kengle, and Stockton will guard the cash. A near-perfect job. And then it all goes sour. Again.

Parker and Webb get back to the lodge, and find what we knew they would find–all three of their confederates are dead, and the money is gone. They head for the house, and find Devers in bed with Ellen–obviously they suspect him, but it’s increasingly clear he’s as shocked as they are. None of them, however, are nearly as shocked as Ellen–when she realizes what’s happened.   And her already-fragile mental equilibrium collapses on itself.

“Marty isn’t dead,” she said.

Parker said, “Devers, slap her face. I want her awake.”

But then Ellen shrieked, “Why would he do a thing like that? Face contorted with rage, she leaped off the bed and tried to run out of the room. Parker grabbed her and she twisted and squirmed, trying to get away, shouting “I’ve got to talk to him, I’ve got to find out! I’ve got to know why he did it, why he’d do something like this!”

Parker slapped her with his free hand, open palm across the face, and she sagged against him, her body abruptly boneless. Holding her up, Parker said “Who? Who did it?”

“I was supposed to be able to trust him,” she said, her eyes closed, her body slack with defeat.

Parker shook her. “Who?”

Devers said, “For Christ’s sake, Parker, don’t you get it? She’s talking about her analyst!”

No, of course Parker doesn’t get it. He’s never needed to confide in anyone–he’ll never be that human. We all understand perfectly well the need to confide, to share the thoughts and emotions we can’t openly express, the darker side of ourselves, the sins we’ve committed, the sins we wish we’d committed–with a family member, a friend, a soulmate, a priest, or if all else fails, a paid professional. All else had failed for Ellen Fusco.

If Parker truly knew what it was to be human, to have that weakness, he would have seen this coming–he knew she was going to see a shrink. They all did, but Marty was blinded by guilt, Stan by lust–Parker, whose most important function in any heist is always to see trouble lurking around each corner, was blinded only by the fact that he’ll never fully understand people. You tell somebody your deepest most dangerous secrets–and you pay him to listen? Lord, what fools these mortals be.

And this mortal was fool enough to think he could finish this review in under 6,000 words, but it doesn’t look promising. The stage manager in me thinks it’s time to take a break, and come back for act two next week. End scene–lower curtain–smoke ’em if you got ’em.

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Filed under Donald Westlake novels, Parker Novels