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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

Review: Plunder Squad

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Ducasse, the one who’d let the guy in and then struggled with him and then been hit on the head by him, came shakily down the hallway, saying, “Did you get the son of a bitch?”

“No, he took off.  Who was he?”

Kirwan said “You don’t even know?  He tried to kill you, and you don’t even know who it is?”

“I didn’t see his face.”

“Uhl,” Ducasse said.  “His name is Uhl.”

Parker frowned.  “George Uhl?”

“That’s right,” Kirwan said.  “You do know him, huh?”

Ducasse said, “What the hell’s he got against you?”

“I left him alive once,” Parker said.

Ducasse said, “Never leave a guy alive who’d like to see you dead.”

“I know,” Parker said. It had been a mistake, and he’d known it at the time, but had done it anyway.  Now he’d have to go correct it.

In his foreward to the University of Chicago edition of this book (the only edition I’ve ever owned, read, or even seen in three dimensions), Charles Ardai writes that after the four Gold Medal paperback originals, Donald Westlake took Parker into ‘harder, darker territory’ in the four subsequent hardcover novels he did for Random House, of which this is the third.

He says they mark a new direction for the character, after the previous four books ‘softened’ Parker by giving him a love interest.  He kind of forgets to mention that the first of the books marking this new direction was mainly about Claire and Parker settling down in a cute little house by a lake, that Claire was the POV character for about a quarter of that book, and Parker comes galloping to her rescue at the end.

Ardai’s right when he says that most people will mention at least one of these four hardcovers when asked which Parker novels they most admire, but I wonder how many have ever mentioned this one?   Some, I’m sure.   Personally, having just read it, I’d take any of the Gold Medals over Plunder Squad, even The Black Ice Score (technically the darkest Parker novel of all, though not in the same way Ardai meant).

But personal preference isn’t really the point here.  As we’ve seen, the Parker series never stopped changing, adapting to new currents in the genre, in publishing, in the world around it, in Westlake himself.  The question is, how is Westlake changing the Parker series, and why?  Is this really any harder or darker than the territory we’ve seen already?  In my estimation, the only thing that’s gotten any harder is the material the book covers are made out of.

If you put a Smith & Wesson Terrier to my head, and ordered me to name the Top Five–

The Hunter

The Man With the Getaway Face

The Score

The Jugger

The Seventh

(Then, as you pondered my list, perhaps thinking of objections to my choices,  I’d take the gun away and shoot you.  Serve you right for pointing a weapon at someone when you don’t intend to use it.  Amateur.)

I like all of them, but to me these are the five that hold up best–the ones that most perfectly embody what Westlake was capable of in the 1960’s, his most prolific era, when writing as Richard Stark.   He’d probably said all he needed to say about the character in the eight novels he did for Pocket Books (with Bucklin Moon offering at least some editorial input), but by that time they were making big budget movies out of them.  He clearly enjoyed writing them.   And while he may have said all he needed to say with Parker, he hadn’t said all that could be said.  There were finer points to be addressed, permutations of the form he could keep coming up with.  As he’d known from the very start, Parker was the kind of character you could write a lot of stories about.

But the thing about permutations is that they tend to get more and more complicated–as you look for new variations on old themes, they may get a tad baroque.  The chief beauty of Parker, of Stark, is simplicity–how could Westlake stick with that while still throwing new curves at Parker, keeping him–and us–off balance?

In the four novels he wrote for Gold Medal, that Ardai seemingly dismisses as a wrong turn, Westlake didn’t ‘soften’ Parker–he just showed us Parker’s needs and reactions were not so simple as they had previously seemed–but Westlake kept it consistent with what he’d already told us.  For example, it turned out Parker needed a mate to stabilize him–this is hardly coming out of left field, since one of the first things we learned about him was that he’d had a wife who shot him, and this betrayal had temporarily unbalanced him, to the point where he had to kill a prison camp guard while escaping, when he was going to be released in a few weeks anyway–he couldn’t wait any longer to go on the hunt.

But once he found her, he could not kill her–merely goad her to suicide–and we were told he was afraid of her–because she still had so much power over him.   So Westlake wasn’t introducing a new element with Claire–merely reintroducing an old one, in a more pleasing (and compatible) form.

We also learned in the Gold Medal era that Parker doesn’t always get what he’s after–The Sour Lemon Score showed us Parker failing to kill George Uhl, who had taken Parker’s share from a bank heist, and tried to kill Parker–something that inevitably puts Parker in full vendetta mode.  He had Uhl right where he wanted him, under the influence of an unnamed ‘truth drug’, incapable of defending himself, and clearly not able to give him any more potentially useful information.  And Parker just broke a few of his bones and left him lying there in the New Jersey swamps.  Because in the childlike semi-conscious state Uhl was in, Parker simply could not kill him.  He knew it was a mistake, but knowing that couldn’t stop him from making it.

Parker also failed to get back his money in that book.  He went through all that for nothing, leaving a dangerous enemy alive, to try again later.  That seems like pretty hard and dark territory to me, but some people interpreted it as Parker showing mercy.   I think those people were wrong, as I made clear in my review of that book.  Parker is a wild animal in the form of a man.  Animals don’t show mercy–but they don’t always kill a helpless foe, either.   Sometimes sheer passivity really is the best way to survive being attacked by a predator.  Depends on the situation.  Depends on why the predator is attacking you.

Parker knows all this on an instinctive level only–on a conscious level, he doesn’t know why he leaves Uhl alive.  He only knows he can’t pull the trigger.  That’s a damned interesting permutation–it show that he isn’t always in control of his reactions–that sometimes his instincts override his judgment.  That his strengths are bound up in his weaknesses.

What makes him so incredibly dangerous to anyone who crosses him also makes his behavior hard to predict–causes him to make mistakes a ‘normal’ man in his position wouldn’t make.  That’s why the character is so endlessly compelling–we’re never quite sure what he’ll do next, how he’ll react to a given situation.   Because we can only see him through a glass darkly (and hopefully never face to face).

So I liked Ardai’s introduction well enough, he makes some solid points, but I think he’s not quite getting it right here.  Parker hasn’t changed–it’s the times he’s in,  the challenges he faces–and to some extent, the publishing niche Westlake is now writing for–you write differently for a hardcover audience in the 70’s than a paperback audience in the 60’s.  The style of the series is evolving, much more than the substance.

Parker was a splendid anachronism back in 1962 (Westlake once called him ‘Dillinger mythologized into a machine’), and that he remains through the subsequent twenty-three novels written over the course of four and a half decades, for five different publishers.  Even in Dillinger’s time, Parker would stand out.  You’d have to go back a lot further than that to find an era he belonged in.  Millennia.  Eons.

He adapts, regroups, updates his methods, but he can’t change his fundamental nature, any more than the leopard can change his spots.  He can only try to make that nature work for him in a constantly shifting human world that he’ll never truly understand, because he’s never truly been a part of it.  But maybe understanding the world is overrated (and, as Westlake once opined, impossible).  Maybe all you really need to understand is yourself.

I mainly love what Westlake did with Parker in the Random House books, creating an arc where Parker is having more and problems making a living in a society less hospitable to heisters (though he did have a successful score in the first one, in spite of subsequent difficulties).  He’s also having more problems with organized crime than he did for most of the series–but that isn’t entirely new either, of course.

Westlake is also going back to Parker’s roots here, as he did with Claire–he’s never fit in with the syndicates of the world, the mobbed up guys, the criminal corporatists, him being the ultimate free agent.  He’s never going to see eye-to-eye with them.  Difference is, with The Outfit, he could fight them to a standstill then make peace–by killing one leader, and replacing him with someone more reasonable.  After the third book, he had no real problems with them, could even pull a job on their behalf, though very much on his own terms.   But the tension between his worldview and theirs remained.

In the Random House books, he began to encounter what for want of a better term we’ll call The American Mafia–a lot of different outfits loosely organized on a national basis.  Primarily but not entirely Italian.  He meets them in all four of those books, and has trouble with them in all four.  They’re everywhere he goes.   Always wanting a piece of his action (or all of it).  Which he has no intention of giving them.  The wolf doesn’t share his kill with rats.

But to make the really big scores, and to hang onto them afterwards, the wolf needs a pack behind him.  Parker’s pack must, of necessity, be composed of humans.   More like him than most people, but still not quite in his league.  He makes do with them, maybe even likes them a little, but they’re still foolish creatures, always letting their undisciplined appetites and emotions get in the way of solid professionalism.  Some are much better than others, but he can never be sure of getting a string that’s all solid pros.  There’s usually a weak link somewhere.

That’s what this book is about, most of all–Parker needs a big score, needs it badly.  He isn’t ready to go back and try to get the money he lost getting away from the mob in Slayground.  There’s a certain odd passivity to him as a heist planner–he rarely ever proposes a job–he waits for someone to point one out to him, then he figures out how to make it work, irons out the kinks, troubleshoots along the way.

So he calls Handy McKay, his former associate and current criminal answering service, and asks if anybody’s looking for talent to pull a job.  And it just keeps refusing to pan out for him.   One job after another falls apart.  This is the book where Parker fails not once but three times.

Now that sounds familiar, doesn’t it?   Is this Westlake finally doing with Parker what he’d originally meant to do in the book that eventually became The Hot Rock?  Not stealing the same thing over and over–that’s a comedic idea, which won’t work with this character.  A more serious approach to the same basic plot template.   A study in professional frustration.

Parker is not, like Dortmunder, going to sulk like Achilles in his tent, grousing about his lousy luck, and he’s certainly not going to try to reform (by which Dortmunder means going on the grift; selling encyclopedias that don’t exist to bored housewives).  Parker can’t even contemplate a change of profession–wolves are less able to adapt to modern life than coyotes.  That’s why there’s so many more coyotes than wolves.  Which doesn’t make a coyote run any slower when he sees a wolf coming.

The opening is reminiscent of The Outfit–in fact, let’s do a direct comparison–

When the woman screamed, Parker awoke and rolled off the bed.

Hearing the click behind him, Parker threw his glass straight back over his right shoulder, and dove off his chair to the left.

Westlake still hasn’t returned to the old “When such-and-such happened, Parker did something” motif, but he’s getting close to it here.  And just as with the earlier book, Parker’s past is coming back to haunt him–this time it isn’t an Outfit hitman, but rather George Uhl, broken bones re-knit, trying to do Parker in at a rented house in some unnamed city, where they intend to hit a department store right after Mother’s Day–on the theory that since women tend to control the charge accounts, the men in their lives will pay for their surprise gifts in cash.   The rise of widely available credit is sure making life more complicated for the heisting class.

Parker must really be desperate for a score–holding the pre-heist meet in the same jurisdiction that the heist is going to be pulled is normally something that gets his hackles up.  He doesn’t even mention it.  But the job is soured regardless, because Uhl ended up shooting one of the other string members (unfortunately for Parker, it’s Ashby, the one who had contacted Uhl), and they had to dump him nearby–whether he lives or not, the cops will be on high alert, and the heist is too risky now.  They could just kill him and dump the body further off, but it’s taking too big a chance, and somehow it’s just not–professional.  They leave him on a sidewalk, and call it in–once they’re a few blocks off.

Uhl was called about the job without Parker’s knowledge, found out Parker was part of the string, and figuring Parker is coming after him sooner or later, decided to take a shot at him first.  Unlike The Sour Lemon Score, we spend no time in Uhl’s head in this one–we don’t even get a physical description–he’s not so much a character here as a lurking elusive presence–an itch Parker needs to scratch, permanently this time.

He clearly hasn’t been looking for Uhl since their previous encounter–seems to have put killing the bastard well to the back of his to-do list.  And he tells his confederates that he won’t go hunting for Uhl right now–he needs to concentrate on money–but he’d appreciate any information about his whereabouts.  If he gets a solid lead, he’ll follow it.  He’d like to tie up that loose end.  But without it, he’ll go back to the job search–and to Claire, who he showers with once he gets back to the house in New Jersey.  He no longer needs a successful heist to become sexually aroused.  Not much in this world can change him, but she has.

Parker is using the alias Edward Latham now, which will recur in many subsequent books–he’s using that name when he flies to San Francisco, to check out another potential job, proposed by Bob Beaghler, who’d be the driver–he’s good at cars, lousy at everything else.  The meet is at Beaghler’s house (Parker is having to put up with so much unprofessional behavior, you almost feel sorry for him), a real white trash affair, complete with a wife right out of Tobacco Road.  But in fact, she’s out of another book entirely.

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Plunder Squad, as all longtime Parker fans know, is a planned crossover with Joe Gores’ Dead Skip.  Gores was a former private investigator, of the decidedly unromantic type–he wrote several books about an agency not unlike the one he’d worked for. Very much of the Hammett School, was Mr. Gores–he and Mr. Westlake had that in common, among other things.

The agency is Dan Kearny Associates (DKA for short), and it’s run by a supremely methodical computer-brained Irishman named Dan Kearny, who has hired a very tight effective crew of younger shamuses to do the legwork along with him.  They don’t solve murder mysteries; they track down bail jumpers, repossess cars, do the kind of work real P.I.’s typically earn their bread by, but of course if somebody gets killed along the way, they might take an interest (this being how authors of detective fiction typically earn their bread).   Imagine if Jim Rockford didn’t work by himself out of a trailer, was well under six feet tall, didn’t speak with a folksy drawl, and was a lot less of a lady’s man.  That’s Kearny.

Damn good book, worth reading in its own right, but from our immediate perspective, the most noteworthy moment is when Kearny shows up at Beaghler’s house, trying to find a guy named Odum, for reasons that are only relevant if you’re reading Gores’ book. And for the first and only time, we get a description of Parker written by someone other than Richard Stark–Kearny thinks at first it’s Beaghler, but he’s got a sharp eye for detail–and he’s noticed all the rental cars parked outside the house.  Somebody’s having a conference.

This man had never been an auto mechanic, or a home-owner, or would have worked for anyone else.  He was wide and blocky, with flat square shoulders, a good half-head taller than Kearny’s five-nine.  His hands were out of a foundry, his wrists roped with veins.  His face was bony, as flat and hard as the shoulders, rough-hewn in the same foundry as the hands.

He didn’t say anything, he didn’t have to.  He confirmed what the clustered rental cars suggested, and made it even more certain by stepping out on the porch and closing the door firmly behind him.

Kearny had to make the motions, anyway.  “Mr. Beaghler?”

“No.”  Just a monosyllable, nothing more.

“How about the little lady of the house?  Is Mrs. Beaghler–”

“No.”

“You mean she isn’t here at the present time, or that–”

“I already said no.”

Parker doesn’t give a damn what Kearny wants, just wants him gone, and if he’s enough of a problem, possibly dead–but he tenses up when Kearny, talking to him outside the house, calls him Parker–a name he only goes by to other heisters.  He’s got to know how that’s possible, because this guy is clearly some kind of law–even if it’s not the official kind.  Parker’s eye is no less sharp than Kearny’s.  In the same scene played out in Plunder Squad from Parker’s perspective, we’re told he half recognizes the guy–old memories coming back to him.

Turns out Kearny met Parker right after he broke out of that California prison camp in 1962, when he was making his way back to New York, for his confrontation with Mal Resnick and The Outfit.  Parker had a different name, and a different face, but Kearny picked up on the essentials, took a shot in the dark, and it paid off–Parker will help him, if only to get him out of the way.

Maybe a little for old time’s sake–Parker always respects professionalism, in all its forms.  He calls Sharon Beaghler out of the house–she’s been seeing Odum on the sly, and doesn’t want her husband to know–Parker leans on her–hard.  She very reluctantly coughs up what she knows.

Kearny departs, hot on his quarry’s trail–Odum is a pretty desperate character, but as Kearny later remarks to his lieutenant Larry Ballard, “I met a man today who would use Odum for a toothpick.”   Parker comes across as a very frightening presence in Gores’ book–Kearny doesn’t impress easy, and he’s impressed.

Based on my reading of the two chapters, I think Westlake let Gores write his first, after they worked out the basics.  Then he wrote his version of the encounter as counterpoint.  In Gores’ version, Kearny killed a bottle of liquor with Parker one night, while Parker was shacked up with Kearny’s sister-in-law (a convenient way to avoid the dragnet).  In Stark’s version, when Kearny mentions this, Parker thinks to himself that he let Kearny kill most of the bottle.  That’s Stark quietly correcting Gores–Parker doesn’t get drunk with anybody.  He’d never let his guard down that far. Certainly not with a stranger.  Kearny is a friendly sociable human being–Parker is none of those things.

Frankly, I don’t buy that Parker was having sex with the sister-in-law, when he was still so intent on getting even with Lynn and Mal, and getting his money.  Stark doesn’t have Parker react at all when Kearny mentions that–maybe the sister-in-law was too embarrassed to admit she hadn’t even scored once with the guy she’s never stopped talking about since–he led her on so he could hide out.  If Parker had been into one of his infamous post-heist ruts, why would he be staying up all night drinking with some guy?  Kearny just assumed what anyone would assume.  Perceptive as he is, he can hardly understand just how anomalous an individual he crossed paths with all those years before.

So it’s kind of a neat thing, this crossover–it expands the Starkian universe a bit (and gives a new crime writer Westlake both liked and admired a bit of a boost).  The crossover chapter in Plunder Squad comes fairly early in the book; the same scene comes fairly late in Dead Skip, and it’s similar to what Westlake did with the opening scenes of The Blackbird and Slayground, only the books came out the same year this time. I’d assume that’s no coincidence.

In some ways, I like Dead Skip better than Plunder Squad.  Heresy, I suppose.  It has the advantage of a more focused plot, a better knowledge of the terrain (California isn’t really Westlake country), and it’s an exciting new take on the private detective genre.  But in saying this, I must still point out that Plunder Squad is harder, more tightly written, devoid of the cheery camaraderie and quiet world-weary compassion that pervades Gores’ book–which at times slips over into melodrama and sentimentality–something you’ll never find in any book by Richard Stark.   You don’t find really find much in the way of sentiment (as opposed to raw emotion, quite a different thing), in anything Westlake wrote under any name.  He wasn’t that kind of Irishman.

So Parker has helped Kearny, for reasons of his own, while Kearny has inadvertently made Parker’s situation a little more tense, and shown Parker just how precarious this job really is, because the guy running it is not in control of his life, his wife, or himself–Beaghler knows on some level that Sharon is running around on him.  He just doesn’t know who with (it’s not just one guy)–when Parker makes up a story to explain why he had to call Sharon out on the porch to talk to Kearny, Beaghler buys it, but not 100%. He thinks of himself as a man’s man–his identity is built on a sort of ostentatious machismo, and that’s always a fragile foundation.

Parker gets him back to talking about the job, which sounds too complicated.   They hit an armored car transporting solid-gold statues on a museum tour.  Beaghler has an all terrain vehicle they can use to take them off-road, bushwhacking through the California hills.  Parker and Ducasse (who was part of the last abortive job, you’ll remember) know it’s dodgy, but they both need the money.   They’re willing to give it the old college try.   Then the wheels come off–again.

Parker must at times curse the fact that women react to him like cats to catnip (poor guy).  Sharon Beaghler comes to his motel room, looking to get laid.  Parker has had enough–he starts packing.  Beaghler shows up, looking to make a scene–Parker just hits him, hard, and goes back to packing.  Beaghler calms down, tries to make nice, but Parker’s made up his mind.  Ducasse decides to stick around and see if he can salvage something out of this soap opera, but it’s pretty clear this one’s a solid gold loser.

And next chapter, Parker is in a town just outside Pittsburgh, breaking into a house owned by a woman Uhl has been seeing (probably one of several, if past patterns hold true).  He got the tip from Kirwan, who is sore at Uhl for ruining that Mother’s Day score of his.  He comes in through the garage, and there’s no car, but maybe Uhl is there anyway–he’ll case the house and see what he finds.

What he finds is something quiet, fast, and as unreflectively relentless as himself–

He heard the clicks on linoleum and saw the dark shape hurtling at him just an instant before it hit, slamming into him at chest height and knocking him flat on his back on the floor.  Its breath was hot and sour in his face, and then it was going for his throat, and he had no choice but to jam the revolver barrel into its hairy side and pull the trigger.

It gave a convulsive leap, and he shoved it away to the left as he rolled to the right.  He hit the wall and got up quickly on one knee, staring, listening, watching.

Its claws were scratching on the linoleum, but it wasn’t going anywhere. He hadn’t killed it, but he’d de-fused it.  He got to his feet and brushed his left sleeve across his face where it had slobbered on him.

So anybody reading this knows Parker got attacked by a dog.   But he, oddly enough, does not.  He continues searching the house in darkness, and once he’s made sure nobody else is home, he turns on the kitchen light and sees a dead Doberman Pinscher.   Probably specially trained not to bark–just move in for the kill–or else he had one of those operations on the vocal cords that ought to be illegal.

Now if this was any other crime fiction tough guy, he’d be feeling bad about killing a dog.  Or more likely, he wouldn’t have killed the dog at all.   A lot of people are funny about that, when reading this kind of story–kill all the people you like, leave the dogs alone.  I’m like that.  I mainly don’t much care for people who aren’t like that.  So while I wonder why Parker couldn’t deduce he’d been attacked by a dog (what else could it have possibly been?) without seeing it, I also wonder why I’m still on his side, reading this.

And I guess it’s because I think of him as a wolf, not a man.  I don’t like that wild wolves kill dogs at every opportunity, to this very day.   But I don’t feel entitled to judge them for it.  It’s a family feud, that we humans started, because we needed some wolves on our side.   Well, that’s the romantic interpretation–hardly scientific.   But highly appropriate when reviewing a Richard Stark novel.

Parker covers up all signs of the struggle, and waits for Uhl to return–unfortunately, the dog has one last service to perform for his mistress.  When Blackie (that was the Dobie’s name) doesn’t come to greet them at the door, Uhl realizes something is wrong, and is on his guard enough to use his ladyfriend as a shield, and get away clean–leaving her behind, naturally–he hasn’t changed a bit.

Damn the dog, Parker thinks.   As I’ve said in the past, Westlake may not have loved dogs, he was probably a bit scared of them, but he respected them, in the same way Parker respects fellow professionals.   No burglar alarm would have worked half so well.   And while Parker threatens Uhl’s girlfriend, to get some information out of her, he doesn’t kill her–if he’d killed Uhl right in front of her, he couldn’t have left a witness behind.  So Blackie saved her life.   And all she’s thinking about is that bastard Uhl, who left her in the lurch.   You could do better than us, dogs.  You know you could.

But after wanking about for 4800 words or so, I can’t finish this review in one installment without going way over my limit, so let’s pick this up next week. It may not be my favorite Parker novel, but there is quite a lot to say about it.   Next time, we meet two characters who figure rather heavily later on in the series–you might call them the Nick and Nora of the heisting set, but he’s no William Powell, and I don’t quite see her as Myrna Loy.   And there’s a modern art angle.   Does Parker understand modern art?   No, and he doesn’t pretend to, either.

But that’s for later–in the meantime, let us pause and remember Blackie–a damn good dog, you ask me.  Never mind what Parker thinks.

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Filed under Donald Westlake novels, Parker Novels, Richard Stark

Review: Deadly Edge

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Jessup was half-good, which is the other side of being half-assed.  He knew how to do some things right but he wasn’t careful enough, he didn’t follow through on the reasons for doing this or that or the other.  He would be one of those people who live their lives as a movie, in which they star and direct and write the story.  That kind goes for drama, like traveling with a Manny.  Or the way they  handled Keegan.  Or what they did to Claire with Morris’ body.  And a man like that won’t crawl across a floor to a doorway, not if his life depends on it.

That was the edge Parker had; he knew that survival was more important than heroics.  It isn’t how you play the game, it’s whether you win or lose.

Up to now, the Parker novels were all paperback originals, that never saw a hardcover edition, and could be found at newsstands, drug stores, and other places cheap tawdry books were sold.  No coincidence that in Adios, Scheherazade, Westlake had an alternate universe version of Stark, named Rod Cox (who has a contract with a paperback house called ‘Silver Stripe’) appear as the now-successful author who started out doing near-porn, and is farming out his pseudonym.  The joke there is that Rod isn’t really respectable either.  Respectable authors get published in hardcover, then reprinted in paperback.   The crime paperbacks are right next to the smut at the newsstand.

Westlake had stopped publishing books under his own name at Random House, because he’d signed on with Simon & Schuster–but only as Westlake.   As Tucker Coe, he’d continued to publish books for their hardcover mystery division.  Now Richard Stark would join Coe there.  The Grofield novels written as Stark had already seen hardcover publication at MacMillan’s Cock Robin mystery division–which come to think of it, is probably one reason why the first three Grofields weren’t heist stories.   The typical Stark narrative didn’t fit the publishing niche.

But Westlake obviously continued to maintain professional ties with his first major publisher, and somehow it was arranged for Parker to come over there, as his relationship with Gold Medal fizzled out, along with the market for paperback originals.  That deliciously lurid era of publishing was coming to a close.  Parker and his ilk would need to find alternative venues for their exploits.

Please note that Deadly Edge was not, like most prior Westlake novels for this publisher, referred to as a ‘Random House Mystery’ on the cover.  It doesn’t seem to have been put out specifically by the mystery division there.  It’s just a novel published by Random House.  Unknown whether Lee Wright, the Random House editor Westlake most esteemed, was involved with it, though if it was up to him, she surely would have been.

Most houses were reorganizing themselves at this time, as the business changed, so maybe this wasn’t such an issue anymore.   But this isn’t labeled a mystery, nor is it from some peripheral imprint of a large house–this is a mainstream book from a mainstream publisher (the mainstream publisher).  It isn’t a paperback original, so it’s not being specifically marketed to men, as crime paperbacks invariably were.  Hardcover mysteries, as Westlake said, were marketed more to women, but this isn’t a mystery either, in the conventional sense.  So what audience is it aiming for?

Westlake, and presumably Wright (if she was involved) would know that Parker’s fanbase was a great deal more diverse than might have been thought.  Women did read Parker novels (and still do).  Men weren’t going to stop buying them just because they were hardcovers and you had to go into a real bookstore to buy one (horrors).

And leaving the gender issues aside, the times they are a’ changin–and Parker has at times seemed to be operating in a dimension where the 1930’s never ended, and Dillinger is still Public Enemy #1 (while somehow Parker never makes the list at all).

This worked because Parker himself is so clearly oblivious to social changes that don’t directly impact the way he does business.  For example, he knows that the electronic transfer of funds is becoming more and more prevalent, because it’s harder and harder to find large amounts of cash that aren’t too well guarded to heist, which makes him more likely to take a risk on an unconventional score if there’s a lot of cash involved.  He may notice men’s clothing just enough so that he can dress himself without standing out in a crowd.  Most changes in the world around him are just surface noise, irrelevant to his profession, therefore ignored.

But for the reader, there’s an increasing dissonance to the way Parker lives and lets die in this ever-changing world in which we live in–meaning that maybe it’s time for that to change.  For example, maybe it’s time for him to stop living in hotels all year ’round–give him a base of operations, something more down to earth.  And maybe the way the books are written, the style itself, has to be updated a bit.  Without losing everything that makes the books unique.  And maybe Parker himself has to be updated slightly, but that’s going to be harder.   That’s going to take some real finesse.   Can Stark do finesse?

One thing that clearly had to be updated was the depiction of organized crime.  Mario Puzo’s The Godfather was published in 1969, and while the mob has never been 100% Italian (crime is everybody’s thing), to show it as anything other than Italian-run was just not going to be credible anymore, and certainly not in an urban setting.  Parker had done extremely well against the seemingly WASP and Irish dominated organization known as The Outfit (which would be shown to still exist on some level), but could he hack it in the world of La Cosa Nostra?  In three of the next four books, he’d be given a chance to prove he could.

This book would have been written around the same time as the final Grofield outing, Lemons Never Lie, and shares a fair few plot points with it.  In both books we see the protagonist in an unconventional domestic setting with his female companion of choice, and in both cases he’s got to leave that domestic scene to take care of business, leaving his woman undefended.  But Parker is not Grofield, and things arrange themselves quite differently in most respects.

The first real change is that the book opens right at the start of a heist, which neither Stark nor Westlake had ever done before (though Jim Thompson had, in The Getaway).  None of the novels had opened with the classic “When such and such happened, Parker did something” riff since The Handle in ’66, none would again until Comeback in ’97, but the opening to this one in ’71 is radically different, not even mentioning Parker’s name or describing any significant action until the second paragraph.  That had never happened before, and it never happened again–in all prior and subsequent novels, Parker is there in the very first sentence.  Doing stuff.

Parker is working with a solid string of pros, guys we haven’t seen before, and they’re standing on the roof of an old theater, the Civic Auditorium in an unnamed city, which is going to be demolished soon, part of an urban renewal program–change is in the air, literally–they can feel the vibrations of a rock concert going on below them, and as they cut their way through the roof, the music gets louder and louder.

Their objective is the box office take, all in cash, because of the impending switch-over to the new theater.   Ticketron had gotten started a few years earlier–a lot fewer people buying their tickets right there at the theater on the day of the concert, but they have no choice this time, and it’s a big concert, featuring several popular bands.   Not the first time Parker has come into contact with rock&roll–remember Paul Brock’s little record store in the Village, in The Sour Lemon Score?–but this is the first real acknowledgement that rock is now the dominant musical form, something that Westlake the jazz buff must have had mixed emotions about.

Since Parker cares nothing for music, Stark expresses that conflict through the other members of the string.  There’s Keegan, the capable but nervous and pessimistic electrical expert, Briley, the lanky affable Tennessean, and Morris, youngest of the group–a member of the rock generation, who would probably be going to see this concert if he wasn’t in the process of robbing it.

Keegan and Briley get into a bit of a musical debate as they make their way down through the breached roof into the building, and the music keeps getting louder.

“Listen to that music,” Keegan said peevishly.  “What the hell ever happened to jazz?”

“It’s still there,” Briley said, going over to the filing cabinets, “in the same gin mills it always was.  When did jazz ever play a joint like this?”

“Jazz at the Phil,” Keegan said.  “I used to have all those records, before that time I got sent up.”

“Jazz at the Phil,” Briley said scornfully.  “Fake.”  He opened a file drawer.  “Empty!  There’s a break.”

“What do you mean, fake?  All the greats were on Jazz at the Phil.”

“Okay,” Briley said.  “Give us a hand here, will you?”

Keegan went over to help him move the filing cabinet.  “I don’t know how you can call them a fake.  My God!  Lester Hawkins, Dizzy Gillespie, Johnny Hodges–”

“I guess you’re right,” Briley said, grinning.  “I must have been thinking of something else.”

(Keegan isn’t quite the jazz maven he thinks he is–he’s conflating Lester Young and Coleman Hawkins, both of whom participated in the Jazz at the Philharmonic concerts and recordings produced by Norman Granz, which many an old school purist did sniff at, but which remain brilliant records to this day.  Westlake, who probably had all those records himself, knows full well that the kvetchy Keegan made a mistake–maybe Briley does too, and doesn’t want to rile his partner in crime up any more.  That’s a real inside baseball joke, and just the kind of thing Westlake loved to do–there for the people sharp enough to spot it–and I missed it the first time I read this one, so some maven I am).

Part One of the book is nothing but the heist, and it’s a good one, offbeat yet believable, very much in the now, no sense of anachronism, except to the extent that Parker himself is an anachronism, and always has been.  Not truly a part of any era he might find himself in.  The guns he and his colleagues are using are quite contemporary by contrast–three Smith & Wesson Model 39’s, which went on the market in 1955, and were still being used by U.S. Navy SEALs.  Parker atypically hangs onto his after the job is done, for reasons we’ll get to shortly.

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The job goes smoothly, with just a few minor wrinkles.  Nobody gets hurt, and they score a decent haul, nothing amazing–about 16g’s a man.  Stark heisters tend to be percentage players.  Still and all, according to an inflation calculator I just checked, sixteen thousand dollars then had almost the same purchasing power as one hundred thousand dollars today.  And lest we forget, tax free.  Parker’s presumably still submitting a tax return, but he’s not reporting this income.

He’s still caching part of his split, and bringing the rest back to Claire.  It’s been about four years since the events of The Jugger forced him to start over from scratch–that matches up with what we’re told in Lemons Never Lie–obviously, since they were written around the same time.

Anyway, Part One is just prologue.  This one isn’t really about the heist itself.  None of Parker’s colleagues try to pull a cross, they have no troubles with the law, they get back to the hideout and divide the loot four ways, and after waiting a few days for things to calm down, they all head off to spend their ill-gotten gains.

There’s just one complication–a fifth man, Berridge, opted out of the job at the last minute, supposedly because he’d decided he was too old to hack it in the heisting world anymore.  But there he is at the hideout–dead.  Somebody killed him, and it wasn’t a clean job. His head was caved in with a wrench.  This isn’t a murder mystery.  So they don’t try to solve the murder.  But maybe they should have.

Part Two picks up with Parker meeting Claire at a house she’s just purchased for them in Northwestern New Jersey.   It’s on a small lake called Colliver Pond, and is located within a few miles of the borders of New York State and Pennsylvania, which means it has to be in Sussex County.  Not a lot of people are familiar with that part of the state.   It’s very rural, quite remote, even though it’s less than a hundred miles from Manhattan.  Pretty country–not the part of the state I grew up in (see my review of The Man With the Getaway Face), but I’ve spent a little time there.  Lot of black bears in Sussex.  No wolves, up to now.

Claire is feeling the nesting impulse.  She’s tired of swanky hotels in Florida and New Orleans and such.  It’s been fun, they can still do it sometimes, but she wants a place of her own–security (Parker might not come back someday, and then what?).  She’s taken Parker’s peculiar needs into account–two state lines nearby–little in the way of local law–the houses around the lake are mainly summer homes, so there are few people around most of the year–they can go somewhere else in the summer.   Probably gets damn cold in the winter, but that won’t be a problem.   She makes that point quite adequately when she joins Parker in the shower.

This is the last book to feature Claire as a major POV character, and to get into her head to any great extent.  It’s definitely the most ‘domestic’ of the Parkers, and I have to think this is at least partly because of the assumption (accurate or not) that more women would be reading Parker novels now that they were in hardcover, so you had to make him seem like a better boyfriend (though I suspect many if not most female Parker fans are identifying with him, not Claire).  At one point, talking to him on the phone she thinks “His voice is very dear to me”–possibly the first person to ever react to his voice that way.   She’s not quite the same kind of fantasy she was before.  She is, for all intents and purposes, his wife.  At least in her mind.

Parker’s mind is harder to plumb, as always.  He’s being as accommodating as he can with Claire, making a conscious effort to appear interested in the house, genuinely pleased at how much thought she put into it, but it’s impossible for him to think of any structure, any geographic location, as home.   To the extent he has a home, she’s it.

He is compelled, as we have seen, to have a woman he can go back to after a job–a mate.  He doesn’t stay with any one woman very long in the first eight books–not after Lynn betrayed him.  Claire represented a return to his old pattern, but it’s not the same as it was with Lynn.  He thinks to himself here that Lynn was hard, but she broke–Claire isn’t hard, but he believes she won’t break–more resilient, more intelligent, more adaptable.

He couldn’t handle being a free agent indefinitely; it was too destabilizing, too far from his instinctive drives.   Does he love her?   We’ve been over this before.  If a wolf can love, Parker loves Claire.  And there’s considerable evidence wolves can love.  But not as we do.  Perhaps that’s too bad for us.  Stark clearly thinks so.

Claire has up to now avoided getting too sentimental about their relationship as well, but now that she’s got a house to wait for him in (purchased with the proceeds of his heists), the relationship has progressed for her.  She doesn’t mind him being away, we’re told, because it’s pleasurable to think about him coming back, in his usual post-heist state of sexual excitement.  She’s got her own domain now.  Once he steps into the house, and then leaves, it’s really hers.  She’s invested in it–maybe a little too invested.

Parker gets a call from Handy McKay a few days after his return–Handy had gotten some panicked-sounding phone calls from Keegan–something’s wrong, and he needs to talk to Parker directly, but he can’t leave a number because he’s on the move.  Impressed by the sense of urgency he heard in the man’s voice, Handy gave Keegan the number of Claire’s house, which could be used to obtain its location.   But Keegan never called.  Parker has to go find out what’s going on (as he did when Joe Sheer wrote him in The Jugger).  He wants Claire to go stay at a hotel in New York until he comes back.

And she won’t go.  She’s just found this place, and she can’t abandon it.  Her instinctive drives are as strong as his, and they’re telling her she has to stay.  Parker doesn’t like it, but his drives are telling him to get on the trail before the scent goes cold.  As she watches him leave, Claire wonders if women are as much a mystery to men as men are to women–she still hasn’t quite come to terms with who–and what–she’s living with.

The rest of Part Two is Parker traveling, finding Keegan not merely dead, but nailed to the wall–he’d clearly been tortured by somebody who is really into torture (I’m tempted to make a Cheney joke, but never mind).  Knowing now that there’s a real problem, Parker tries once more, over the phone, to get Claire to pull up stakes and leave the house, before whoever is tracking down the concert heisters one by one makes it to Colliver Pond.  She just won’t do it.  He’s frustrated, and in his own unemotive way, worried.   He tells her to remove any vestige of his presence from the house, and if anybody comes looking for him, say she’s just his answering service.

He goes looking for Briley, and in the process runs into a small branch of the Italian mob–their first real appearance in the series.  Somebody looking for Briley killed a woman who ran a mob brothel, and the local capo wants Parker to help them find whoever did it–Parker says he works alone.  He doesn’t always, of course, but it would take too long to explain, and you know how much he hates explanations.

The boss puts a tail on him.   He lures them into a trap, disables their car, leaves them there.  They say he’ll never get away with it; they’re national, and he’s just one guy.  He’s heard that song before.  He’ll be hearing it again before long.

When the mobsters pat him down for weapons, we find out Parker sometimes carries a knife in a sheath on his back–he can reach back for it and throw it, often hitting the target–a neat trick, if somebody has a gun on you and makes you put your hands behind your head.   We never actually see him do this, but his knife-throwing skills factor pretty heavily into the next book, and Westlake wanted to set that up in advance.

Parker finds Briley dying–he offers no assistance, not that there’s anything he could do–and he finds something else–evidence of drug use by at least one of the people who killed Briley.   These are not your typical old school pros.  They’re effective, dangerous, unconventional–but sloppy.  Amateurs.  Again with the amateurs.

After he leaves Briley, still breathing but basically dead, Parker goes to a nearby diner, and calls Claire.  She answers him very formally, addresses him as Mr. Parker.   He gets the message.   They’ve arrived.

Part Three is all Claire and the longest time we’ve spent in any character’s mind other than Parker’s since the early days of the series.  The structure is different here–in the past, Part Three was usually switching from one character to another, chapter by chapter, and then we’re back inside Parker’s head for Part Four.  Here we stick with Claire the whole way.  It’s her show, and she’s not enjoying it much.

In the days following Parker’s departure, she whiles away the time in her new domicile, enjoying the life she’s found for herself, the secret heister’s moll–it’s a great fantasy.   Nobody around her knows her secret–just going out to dinner with Parker is a thrill.   Nobody knows she’s involved with one of the most dangerous men on the planet.   Does she?  Yes and no.  She can be very honest with herself at times, very self-deceptive at others–it’s a coping mechanism.   We all have them.

After Parker calls her, and she refuses to leave, she sets out to prepare herself for whoever might be showing up–she increasingly realizes, as Parker knew all along, that your typical country home, full of doors and windows, is not easy to defend.

She buys a hunting rifle, and teaches herself how to use it–it’s the ladies home edition of the type of outfitting we see Parker do all the time–unlike Parker, she can just walk into a sporting goods store and buy a gun.  She also tries to get a dog, but there are none for sale right now who would be any use as guardians.  We hear her thinking she’d love to get a puppy and train it–that would have been interesting, if she’d gone through with it–how would the dog react to Parker?  How would Parker react to the dog?  We’ll never know.

Did Westlake ever have the “Let’s get a dog” discussion with any of his wives?   By this time he was living out in the country himself, and then he’d be traveling for work, and of course it would come up, and he wouldn’t want to say “I don’t want a dog because they scare me.”  He’d see the logic behind having one–even a friendly dog is a deterrent to most burglars, and I know it was one reason my dad got us a dog when I was growing up–he traveled a lot.   Westlake frequently mentions that people who live out in the country keep dogs for protection.   But it’s pretty clear the Westlakes never had one, and neither will Claire.

She gets back to the house, walks in, and then realizes she’s not alone.  There’s this weird-looking vaguely hippie-ish man on the couch, who is apparently tripping out.  Then she turns around and there’s another one–also dressed a bit wild, with his hair frizzed out like an Afro, wearing a fringed leather jacket.  The guy on the couch is Manny.  The other one is Jessup.   It’s really hard to say which is worse.

This is not a book about psychotic hippies.  That’s just to give it a more contemporary spin.  There’s no attempt by Stark to get into their heads, tell us anything much about their past, why they dress like that, who they are.  Claire and Parker will have to try and understand them, but only for the purposes of survival.  Westlake probably had his reservations about the counter-culture, but he’d dealt with it sympathetically in the past, and would again later.

The real point of these guys isn’t what subculture they’re from–it’s that they are amateurs who don’t know where to draw the line, or that any line exists.  They smell money, and they want it.  They don’t care what they have to do to get it.  They don’t care who they hurt.  They have a certain loyalty to each other, and they don’t think of themselves as bad guys, but real bad guys never do.  In some ways, they’re like Parker, but without the self-knowledge, or the self-control.  Claire compares both of them to wild animals in her mind, but the only animal that ever behaves like these guys is homo sapiens sapiens.

Jessup in particular feels familiar–we’ve seen variations on this guy in the past.  Matt Rosenstein in The Sour Lemon Score, who was sort of in Parker’s subculture, but not really–only half a pro–he enjoyed the violence too much.  His physical description is very reminiscent of Bruce Maundy from A Jade in Aries–I’m guessing these characters are all based on somebody from Westlake’s past–you know how Michelangelo put some guy whose guts he really hated in hell on the Sistine Chapel ceiling?  Like that.

So Claire plays the role Parker instructed her to play–she knows nothing, she’s just the answering service.  She’s just a little mouse, as she puts it.  She’s had to deal with dangerous men before.  Jessup takes a good look at her, and rape is in his mind, but she gets it out by fooling him into thinking she’s got some exotic kind of clap.  For which he gives her a morally disapproving look–like I said, no self-awareness at all.   There are so many people like this in the world, you wouldn’t believe it.  Or maybe you would.

Manny is much more abstracted than Jessup.  Well to put it another way, he’s nuts.  He wants Claire to play a game called ‘Surrealism’–there are actually a lot of mind games associated with that artistic movement, but Manny seems to have come up with his own, where you pick a famous person, and then guess what kind of car they’d be, and like that.  Manny can go from childish delight to fiendish rage in a heartbeat, so she has to step lightly.

So she plays the various games as best she can with these two guys, and when Parker calls, she lets him know what’s going on, without alerting Jessup (the brains of the outfit, such as they are).   She hopes he’s not too far off.

They’re sitting down to a sort of pseudo-Mexican dinner Jessup cooked up, when the doorbell rings–it’s Morris.  You remember–the young member of the string–the rocker.  They’ve been looking for him, but he found them first.  Only he’s not quite sure at first who they are.  He sits down at the table with them–Claire can’t tell him anything without admitting she’s not who she’s been claiming to be–and he tells them a story.

Turns out Berridge had a grandson, who had a friend, and they found out about the money.  Berridge refused to help them, and they killed him.  Then they followed Keegan, and he gave them enough leads to find the others, except for Morris.  Only see, they thought there was a lot more than there actually was–they didn’t believe Keegan when he said all he had was 16 grand.  No sense of real-world limitations.

And just as Morris decides yeah, these are the guys, and draws down on them–well, he waited a bit too long.  They get the jump on him, and good-bye Morris.

And as Part Three concludes, Claire, having barricaded herself in the bedroom, is realizing she’s got no more cards to play–she’s witnessed them commit a murder.   They are not going to let her live.  They probably wouldn’t have anyway.  They trick her into emptying her rifle into Morris’ dead body on the porch.  Then they break in and grab her.

But then it’s Part Four, and you know what that means.  Parker’s here.  We see the last few hours from his perspective–he stole a rowboat on the other side of the lake, and came across quietly.   He gets there just as Jessup and Manny break into Claire’s room–and he puts a bullet in Manny’s arm.  It’s not hard to freak out guys like this–they’re both cowards, as Claire contemptuously tells Parker–their nerve tends to fail at critical moments.

They run for their car–a Corvette, so either they stole it or they’ve been spending Keegan’s money damn fast–and try to get the hell out of Dodge.  But Parker shoots out a few of their tires, so they can’t get far.  He’s ready to end this.  They’ve triggered that itch in his head that he can only scratch by killing whoever caused it.

Claire fills Parker in, and her information, combined with what he’s already learned, gives him insight into how these guys think.  Enough to track them to an empty house nearby.  Where he finds Manny tripping out again (of course).  He creeps upstairs, through the darkened boarded-up house, lit up by one candle stuck in a wine bottle.  He’s got to be careful how he disposes of them–he doesn’t want to leave blood on the floor if he can help it–nothing that might trigger alarm bells with the local law.  He wants to kill these men in such a way as that nobody will ever connect their deaths to Colliver Pond.

So Parker has to use his hands–he finds Jessup in the dark, and begins to throttle the life out of him–but Manny, alerted by Jessup’s screams, comes in with a tiny .22 pistol, and tells him to stop.  Jessup is half-dead by then, desperately in need of medical attention, so Parker tells Manny he’s going to need Parker to carry Jessup to the car, and drive him to the doctor.  Without Jessup to think for him, Manny is easy to fool.  But still cagey enough to sit in the back, with the gun pointed at Parker’s head.

Now Parker has to get them just a few miles away from there, so some other police department will be dealing with their corpses.   Jessup comes to, and starts whispering to Manny through his badly damaged larynx–he knows Parker was doing more damage to his throat, even as he was carrying Jessup down to the car.  He knows what’s coming, but it’s already too late.   Parker is driving too fast.   Shoot him, they all die.   He makes it to a turn-off on the highway, and then into a construction site, and then he leaps from the speeding car, which collides with a tractor.

Parker’s legs are bruised, but he’s otherwise unhurt.  And still armed.  Manny never thought to take his gun.   How have these two clowns made it this far?  Jessup is out of the car, firing at him, and there’s a brief stalemate.  That ends when Manny starts shrieking like the damned.  Between his wounded arm and the crash, he’s in too much pain–he took a huge dose of the hallucinogenic drug he’s been using.  His mind is collapsing on itself.   And Jessup can’t take it.  As twisted as their friendship might be, it’s all he’s got, and as Parker already knew, he lives for the drama.  He runs out into the open to help his partner.  And Parker shoots him.  Then Manny.  At this point, it’s the merciful thing to do.   Not that mercy is even remotely the point.

He gets a ride back to Colliver Pond from a friendly farmer.  He tells Claire they won’t be back.  She knows what that means.  She isn’t exactly glad, but she’s not the least bit sorry.  Knowing the monsters are dead, she beckons to the far more terrible monster she lives with to join her on the couch, by the fire.  The monster does so, and stares moodily into the flames.  Thinking surprisingly human thoughts.  He wishes she hadn’t turned the lights off, and lit that fire.  It reminds him of the candle light in the dark house he found Manny and Jessup in.  But he knows she meant it to be romantic, so he lets it go.  He can be flexible.  She’s worth it to him.  She’s all the home he’ll ever have.

It’d be interesting to compare this book with Ripley Under Ground, the second book of the so-called ‘Ripliad’, which was published about a year before Deadly Edge.  It’s barely possible Westlake read it before writing his radically different blue collar take on the same basic story.  I kind of doubt he did–timing’s a bit close–and yet–the American edition was published by (wait for it)–Random House.  Anyway, it’d be interesting to make the comparison, but I haven’t read any of the Ripleys yet (been saving them for a rainy day).  I’ll do a Westlake/Highsmith piece one of these days.  Going to have to, eventually.

Parker isn’t like Ripley–that much I know.  Ripley needs to own things–he got started on his life of crime because of that desire to possess.   He does want a home, a sense of place, culture, to make up for a certain blankness within himself.  Parker has no such desires.  Blankness is his natural state of being, except when he’s working (or with Claire, playing).  The house is just a house to him.  He could walk away from it without a backward glance, but Claire couldn’t. She’s lived there like five minutes, and it’s already a part of her.

As soon as Parker goes to hunt down Jessup and Manny, she starts cleaning it–to make it hers again.  Before he does anything else, she makes him get rid of Morris’ body.  It isn’t that she’s weak.   It’s that she’s hanging onto something–something she desperately needs.  And he doesn’t understand that need at all.  He never could.

The book is about this dichotomy in their natures, and yet, as Parker muses, with those rare flashes of what might be called empathy that we get from him now and then, he can see that it’s not entirely different from the way he gets sometimes–the way he does things that make no sense in certain situations.

He looked at her, and understood vaguely that there was something in her head about the idea of home that wasn’t in his head and never would be.  The world could go to hell if it wanted, but she would put her home in order again before thinking about anything else.

He tried to find something in his own mind to relate that to, so he could understand it better, and the only thing he came up with was betrayal.  If someone double-crossed him in a job, tried to take Parker’s share of the split, or betray him to the law, everything else became unimportant until he had evened the score.  And like the two tonight, Manny and Jessup; there was no way that Parker was not going to settle with them for the insult of their attack.  In some way, what Claire was into now had to be something like that, with a sense of home instead of a sense of identity.

Identity.  It always comes down to that in a Westlake novel, but the word itself appears only rarely in his books, as if he’s trying to hide the central theme of his work from us, make us work for it.  And yet here he’s putting it into the head of his most nonverbal and uncommunicative protagonist.  Perhaps because he was, in a sense, reintroducing Parker here, to the new world of ‘respectable’ hardcover publishing, and he felt the need to make things a little more clear than usual.  Or perhaps because as Mary makes Grofield more three-dimensional in Lemons Never Lie, Claire makes Parker just a bit more human. But underneath, he’s still the same predator he was before.

At one point, she compares him to a gorilla–to which he responds “Gorillas have mates.”  Yes, but they don’t hunt.  Wolves do.  And are hunted in return, by men.  And in the next book in the queue, Parker finds himself hunted as never before.  But the hunters in that book don’t know their quarry at all, and it will cost them dearly.  Forget ‘Surrealism.’  Parker is the most dangerous game of all.

(Very belated postscript–Wikipedia gave me a bum steer–the first edition of Ripley Under Ground was published by Doubleday, not Random House.  One of the few major houses Westlake never worked with (I don’t think they even reprinted any of his books).  So the odds of his getting a sneak peek are very poor, making the timing very close indeed for Westlake to have been influenced by it.  I’ve read the Ripley book now, and the differences are a lot more striking than the similarities.   However, there’s this one scene–involving a hung effigy–that makes me wonder if I was right after all.  And I’m still a long way off from writing that Westlake/Highsmith piece.  But if Westlake did read Ripley Under Ground before writing Deadly Edge, it would be no more plagiarism than Bach doing a variation on a theme by Vivaldi doing a variation on a theme by Bach doing a variation on etc.–and yes, in this analogy, Westlake is Bach.  There’s nothing insulting about being compared to Vivaldi.)

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Filed under Donald Westlake novels, Parker Novels