Tag Archives: James Bond

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 Handle (AKA Run Lethal)

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“I sure wish I knew what was going on.”

“I’m a counterspy,” Parker told him.  “I got to get to Washington before the Russkis start World War Three.”

“It’s something like that,” the kid said.

From The Handle, by Richard Stark

“Don’t look to me for any James Bond rescues.”

“I don’t look to anybody for James Bond rescues,” Parker assured him.
From Backflash, by Richard Stark.

Okay, so here’s the story–Parker has a mission, should he choose to accept it, given to him by Walter Karns of The Outfit.  His target is a remote island in the Gulf of Mexico, where a former Nazi officer who calls himself Baron is maintaining a casino, with assistance from the Russians and the Cubans.   Parker is to do reconnaissance, then recruit a group of professionals, and take out Baron’s operation.   He arrives on the island with a beautiful blonde, equipped with a cunningly concealed spy camera in her purse, and–hey–did we wander into the wrong book by mistake?  What gives here?

As I mentioned in my last review, Donald Westlake believed Robert Ludlum (among others) was writing crime fiction novels tricked up as spy thrillers, simply to avoid getting slotted into a genre with decent but limited sales–much the same way Kurt Vonnegut stopped calling his stuff science fiction, so he could get on all those recommended reading lists.  But isn’t ‘spy thriller’ or ‘espionage’ a genre too?  Yes, and books like that can even get categorized as mysteries, but somehow, when properly marketed, the potential audience for spy stories has been much greater from the 1960’s onwards–and that began in earnest with Ian Fleming.

Having created James Bond in 1953, and enjoyed brisk but hardly epochal sales throughout the 50’s, Fleming became an earner on the same level as Mickey Spillane around 1961–when President Kennedy (an acquaintance of Fleming’s) said in an interview that one of his favorite books was From Russia With Love.  That was just about the exact time Westlake would have been writing The Hunter, you should note.  You should also note that the Robert McGinnis cover for the Gold Medal reprint of that book made Parker look like Sean Connery, and that McGinnis was much better known for his artwork on Bond movie posters. 

In a sense, you could say Bond picked up where Mike Hammer left off–but unlike the brutish Mike, Bond was civilized, urbane, suave, well-mannered, and impeccably well-dressed–and unlike Hammer, his violence was state-sanctioned, and necessary for the survival of western civilization, if not indeed humankind itself–even his famed sexual rapacity could be excused (and vicariously enjoyed) for this reason.  Fleming took his critical lumps, as Spillane had before him, but like Spillane, he knew what the public wanted, and provided it over the course of 13 books (one published posthumously), and then of course the torch was passed to others, because Bond was no longer exclusively Fleming’s creation.  Not since Eon Productions and an Edinburgh mick named Connery transformed him into an industry.

Those movies were so immensely popular (to the point where by the end of his short eventful life, Fleming was retooling his Bond to be more like the screen incarnation), that even Mike Hammer couldn’t compete anymore.   Bond joined Sherlock Holmes, Dracula, and other characters who transcend (or just plain abandon) their creators’ original visions, and become something that gets ‘reimagined’ every few years (pretty sure Ian Fleming didn’t think Bond had a hunting lodge in Scotland named “Skyfall” with a gamekeeper–that would probably have come up in the course of 13 novels).    007 isn’t in the public domain yet, and one can only imagine what will happen to him when copyright expires.   But maybe he’s like Mickey Mouse–trademarked?  Trademarks never expire, any more than fictional licenses to kill.

Like just about anyone reading this, I’ve known Bond since at least the dawn of adolescence (I’m a Connery man right down the line, though the pretenders have their place, I suppose), and it was only this week that I ever read a Bond novel–for research.   It happened to be Moonraker (it was available).   I could see certain parallels between Bond and Parker, mainly in the way that Fleming would (at least in the early days) lay out a pattern to Bond’s life between adventures, explain to the reader that Bond only worked several times a year, and just devoted himself to training and various personal interests like vintage cars and other men’s wives the rest of the time (not that Parker has any such interests, or really any interests, period).  And of course in the generally amoral way Bond goes about his daily business, though his motivations for what he does (and his personal reactions to it) are another matter.

The other thing I saw was that Ian Fleming wasn’t half the writer Donald Westlake was.   Sales be hanged.  The accursed critics had a point, just as they did with Spillane.   Fleming was not a wordsmith for the ages.   But then, he didn’t have to be.   He was a damned good storyteller, armed with an engaging fantasy he could back up with just enough verisimilitude drawn from his wartime experience in Naval Intelligence (not to mention his bedtime experience in other men’s wives), and that’s all most readers have ever cared about.  But the readers have long been outnumbered by filmgoers, and more recently, videogamers.

Fleming, interestingly enough, was influenced by some of the same writers as Westlake–notably Dashiell Hammett and Graham Greene.  If he’d started writing as young as Westlake had–well, he would probably have missed out on some of the experiences he put into his books.   Maybe he would have been a much better writer with much lower book sales.   It’s not for me to say.   The two men came from radically different backgrounds, radically different generations.   Different class, different nationality, different ethos.  Still, they had some similar preoccupations.  Well, lots of people have those preoccupations.   That’s why all these books are still in print.

So anyway, The Handle is Westlake intentionally putting Parker into a Bond-like situation, just to see what happens.  Probably there’s some Matt Helm in there as well, maybe some Mission Impossible, but how much research am I supposed to do for one review?   It’s not a Bond spoof, like The Liquidator, or the Derek Flint movies with James Coburn (or the first film adaptation of Casino Royale).   It’s not written as a parody, or a send-up of any kind.   Satire, possibly.  Westlake, writing in his Stark mode, is setting out to show not the similarities between his protagonist and Fleming’s, but rather to ironically highlight the differences.   This is his response to Bond, to Helm–he doesn’t need to refer to them–his readers are mainly reading those books as well.   He can make it all subtextual, and those who want to see the point can pick up on it without any help–the rest can blithely ignore it, and enjoy a good trans-genre adventure.

We pick up with Parker, not long after the events of The Seventh, surveying the island Baron’s casino is on from a boat manned by employees of the outfit, including a perpetually tipsy (but dangerous) admixture of playboy and thug named Yancy. We’re told Parker is 38 now, which I’d guess would make him 35 or so when we first met him. It doesn’t really matter, but somehow you want to know. Time is passing. He is getting older.

They can’t get in too close. The island is small and carefully guarded–there are only a few places it’s possible to land at all. Parker tells Yancy to get him a map of the island, along with information about personnel, particularly armed personnel. He looks with disdain at a fancy map The Outfit got an artist to make up, and concentrates on the technical map the artist was working from, which is all lines and numbers–facts. Not fancy.

Yancy, an outwardly jovial drunk constantly putting on an act that Parker sees through easily, is none too happy with Parker’s typically blunt and surly attitude, but he knows Karns wants this guy for this job, so he has to put up with it–promising Parker they’ll have a reckoning later on–as it happens, they never do, which seems odd given the amount of time devoted to the character.   It belatedly occurred to me that Yancy might be Stark’s sardonic take on Bond–a hired thug with outwardly good manners, and a taste for the finer things in life, who is really just an errand boy.  But if that is indeed the point of Yancy, it’s a very private joke indeed.   He doesn’t look at all like Bond, so maybe he’s Felix Leiter instead.  Or maybe I’m overthinking the parallels with the Bond novels.

Contemplating Yancy and his co-workers, Parker thinks to himself that The Outfit is just a bunch of overspecialized nitwits, each of them useless for anything but a single job, many of them useless for anything at all. He hasn’t changed his opinion of big hierarchical organizations, private or public, straight or crooked. Success and stratification make you soft and stupid. It’s the independents of the world who know what’s what.

But he likes one of their specialists quite a bit–Crystal, a combination courtesan/photographer, a foxy little brown-eyed blonde who gets assigned to him so that he can personally case Baron’s island as a paying customer. He just doesn’t look like the right type to be there, but with her as a cover he can blend in well enough.

She’s terrified of the water (Parker merely dislikes being out on the open ocean because there’s nowhere to hide on it), but she does a solid professional job once she’s there, taking all the photographs he needs, and playing the role of a rich man’s plaything with practiced ease. He’s impressed with her. And once they’re back, and he tells her there’s no point in sleeping with him to get information, because he’s on to her–she convinces him that since he does know, and she knows he knows, and she’s got nothing to report to her bosses, and she would want to be with him anyway because he intrigues her…..he can’t argue with her logic, and he reaches for her hungrily.

This seems to violate his usual sexual pattern, but it’s an unusual situation for him. He just finished a job a few weeks ago, and only had three days and nights with Ellie Canaday before she was murdered. He’s still got quite a bit of his post-heist horniness to work off, and he’s not actively planning this new job yet. So he enjoys Crystal for a few days, before Grofield and Salsa show up–and then, having formally begun working, has lost all sexual interest in her, so she dallies with Grofield–married to Mary Deegan from The Score now, but Grofield is a born polygamist, and when you can’t be with the one you love…

She also asks to photograph Salsa in the nude, and he seems quite willing to comply. Parker pays no attention to any of this–it’s irrelevant information, filtered out by his one-track mind. Sexual jealousy is seemingly not a component of his nature. Or any other kind of jealousy, for that matter.

There’s a brief flashback to his meeting with Karns in Las Vegas, where the Outfit boss (who owes his position to Parker) forces Parker to listen to yet another history lecture (ala The Mourner) full of irrelevant detail; this one about the island of Cockaigne, and its self-styled master, a German who calls himself Baron, who got the Cubans to lay claim to this insignificant speck of dirt about 40 miles off the coast of Texas, and has established his own little hedonist wonderland there, named after the mythical paradise, where every desire is granted, and the social order is turned upside-down. Parker wishes Karns would just get to the point, but he’s still short of cash after the events of The Jugger, so he forces himself to listen.

(Sidebar–this book contains footnoted references to the events of every previous Parker novel other than The Mourner, which perhaps resembles The Handle a bit too much in its European nemesis and spy thriller trappings, and there’s no need to refer to it anyway, since it doesn’t impact anything happening in this book. Westlake rewarding his faithful readers here, and reminding newcomers that there’s a lot of other books to read–it also fosters the sense of this being a continuing story, not just an assortment of disconnected episodes).

The point, simply put, is that Baron refuses to play ball with The Outfit, and share his profits with them. He’s taking business away from their gambling operations, and they want him shut down for good. Karns remembers how effective Parker was in organizing robberies of The Outfit’s various illegal casinos, and figures by using Parker he can get this job done on the cheap without getting his own hands dirty. He says Parker can figure on as much as a quarter million if he robs Cockaigne–and The Outfit will bankroll the heist, and provide needed intel, on condition that Parker and his string leave not one stone standing on another when they leave the place. The job isn’t to kill Baron–just to break him.

Parker isn’t for hire–Karns is perceptive enough to know that. He’d be working for himself, as always, with The Outfit as silent partner (not silent enough, you can hear him thinking)–but he has one big stipulation–if he’s going to take all the risks here, he wants Karns to guarantee that if the ‘handle’ on the island is below 200k, The Outfit will make up the difference to Parker and his men. Karns grudgingly agrees. Parker is a better negotiator than he had anticipated. A lot of the tension in the first half of the book is between The Outfit’s corporate culture and the independent outlook of Parker and his associates. And in a Richard Stark novel, we’re left in absolutely no doubt as to which outlook is superior.

Though Parker is always the ultimate independent in Starkville, we learn a good deal more about Grofield here, and see that he is being groomed to be the second Stark protagonist (the events of this novel would lead directly into Grofield’s first solo outing). Grofield, we are told, took to heisting as a way of bankrolling his acting career–not because he couldn’t make a very good living in TV and film, but because he refuses to degrade his art (and his identity) by taking such work. One perceives a certain wry commentary from the author peeking out here, but we’ll talk more about that in later articles.

To Grofield, only the ‘legitimate theater’ is truly legit, and only a select handful of actors ever make a living there without some form of income supplementation–somehow you can’t see him busing tables between gigs. He and some fellow actors robbed a supermarket almost as a gag, but the heist was successful, and he found that the work suited him somehow–this creates a division in his nature that will always make him second to Parker–but still very effective in his own way, and much closer to Westlake in his tastes and preoccupations.  Much as I think of Parker as a wolf that got born into a man’s body, I think of Grofield as a Westlake protagonist who got born into a Richard Stark novel.

His style is markedly different from Parker’s (he’s human, for one thing), but they share a devotion to high professional standards, and to avoiding certain types of personal compromise at all costs. And they tend to like the same women, which you would think would lead to conflict, but somehow never does. Because Grofield isn’t really the jealous type either. His sins are many, but hypocrisy isn’t one of them. “Polygamy,” he tells Crystal most solemnly, “is the only answer.”   For him, certainly.

A further wrinkle emerges–government agents who want to arrest Baron and are aware of the impending heist, brace Parker at Crystal’s apartment, and tell him they’ve got the goods on him and his colleagues–so they can bring Baron into their jurisdiction, or face lengthy jail terms.   This, of course, is the wrong way to approach Parker, who never responds well to threats–they should have offered him something he wanted in exchange for Baron (like expunging his criminal record, and those fingerprints connected to a prison guard’s death that keep coming back to haunt him), but of course their bureaucracy doesn’t work like that, and neither do they–they’re even further away from understanding a man like Parker than Karns and The Outfit.  They think they can use him, but they end up being used.

Then we take a brief detour into the mind and existence of Baron Wolfgang Friedrich Kastelbern von Altstein–a genuine Prussian aristocrat, but sadly not the kind with money.  He played with the right wing politics of Germany in the 20’s and 30’s, going from the Brownshirts to the SS, moving up in the ranks–and learning once the war started, that he had no real taste for politics  or its blood-stained alternative.  He’s got no interest in ruling the world, merely enjoying its many pleasures.  He committed no war crimes but dabbled in virtually every other kind, notably art theft, and became quite wealthy by the end of the conflict, adding to that wealth on the black market after the war, and temporarily evading the nets of the Nazi-hunters, since he never really was much of a Nazi to start with (if we’re going to dislike him, it’s not going to be for something that obvious).

However, there comes a point when stripping a country like France of its treasures under military occupation gets to be considered a war crime of sorts as well, and he has to flee Europe to New Orleans (one of the few places in America he’d consider civilized), where he ties up his money in various semi-legitimate businesses only to be forced to abandon it there and run to Castro’s Cuba when the American law comes after him.

In Cuba, he convinces some very gullible KGB operatives that he could collect intelligence for them if he were set up on this little island he’s had his eye on with a credible cover like a casino–he has no intention of ever providing them with anything useful, just using them and the equally credulous Cubans to rebuild his lost fortune, then disappear once more into a well-earned retirement.   Well, that’s how he sees it, anyway.

Baron (as he now calls himself) is a fitness freak, who looks much younger than his 57 years.  He has a devoted aide from his Nazi days named Steuber; bodyguard, valet, chauffeur, personal trainer–you might call him Oddjob if that wasn’t already taken.  Baron has created his own little world, a blend of mismatching elements from past lives, a stronghold where he alone reigns supreme, but that’s the problem, though he doesn’t realize it yet.   He’s become too dependent on that world and the people in it, his sense of self all wrapped up in being the mysterious Baron, lord of Cockaigne.  He’s switched identities a few too many times, and though he’s always gotten away with it before, his lucky streak is about to run out.

While putting together their string, Parker and Grofield had been forced to reject a fellow named Heenan as their boatman–he seems unreliable, just out of prison for molesting an 11 year old girl, after serving a bit over five years of a fourteen year sentence–and yet not on parole.  Parker doesn’t like the smell of him (who would?), but they haven’t told him much of anything, so they just tell him he’s not needed.

Two things they don’t know–first of all that Heenan was working for the Feds, who recruited him to keep tabs on Parker & Co., which is how he got out early–and secondly that he’s one to bear a grudge.  He goes off on his own to Cockaigne (which he knows about because the Feds told him), and tips Baron to the impending heist, figuring he’ll get a nice cash bonus, and revenge for being rejected.  Baron believes him, but isn’t inclined to let him go before the heist goes down.   He doesn’t trust the Irish–his one prejudice, he calls it.   Heenan is an amalgram of all the worst anti-Irish cliches in the book–Westlake having a perverse bit of fun with his own tribe.

Parker and the others wait some days before pulling the job–they don’t want the Feds to know when it’s going to be.   Grofield and Salsa go out there night after night just to play cards, throw dice, and watch cockfights–finally the big night arrives, and this time they turn on the agents tailing them and render them harmless.  Then Baron’s men try to do the same to Grofield and Salsa–Salsa just melts into the underbrush and starts planting hand grenades to go off at an appointed time.  Grofield, not quite as smooth, pulls out his gun and starts shooting.  He kills the two men sent to take him, but gets shot up a bit himself.

Salsa is finally captured–found dancing with a rich old matron, as he once did in his days as a shipboard gigolo.  Protective coloration, no doubt, but perhaps also a premonitory act of nostalgia.    Baron asks him where he’s been, what he’s been doing–“I have been dancing.”  Salsa asks the time–ten o’clock–“Then it no longer matters.”   He discloses the existence of the fire-bombs, but when asked where they are, he says “The exact locations are hard to describe.  It might take half an hour to give you the precise idea.”  He is not the least bit put out by any of this.   You might as well be asking him where to find the nearest cafe.

Baron tries to get him to tell where Parker is, but he just smiles and goes limp, awaiting the expected blows.  Baron’s calm self-assurance shatters as the bombs go off, the entire island starts to go up in flames, and he realizes his time as Lord of Cockaigne is coming to a finish no matter what he does now–he grabs a heavy desk set and beats Salsa to death with it in impotent rage, not even realizing what he’s doing until it’s done.  Heenan panics as well, knowing that Parker will be coming after him soon.  He grabs a Luger from Baron’s gun closet, and kills Steuber with it–now Baron’s world is truly ended, all ties to his past identity cut.  He lies there in the dark and tries to figure out his next move.   There has to be some way out of this.

In the meantime, Grofield meets Parker at the dock, taking out the men who were there to prevent their boat from landing–the pilot is killed, but there’s no time to worry about that, because the island is in complete chaos now–they’ve got a clear path to the casino, and the loot.  They see Heenan, figure out the story in half a second, and cut him down.  They get what they came for in Baron’s office–including a nice little cache of diamonds Baron was saving for a rainy day–but miss Baron himself, hiding under his desk.

Once they’ve left for the boat, he decides he is not going to take this lying down after all–armed with a Colt .45 automatic from his gun locker, he comes up behind them at the dock, shooting both men, taking back his goods, and heading for Mexico in the cabin cruiser The Outfit had provided Parker with for the job.   He doesn’t realize the now very badly wounded Grofield is hiding onboard.

He lands the boat on a remote shoreline, and treks through the desert, carrying heavy bags full of money and diamonds, looking for some sign of civilization, scheming all the way, congratulating himself on his intrepidity and foresight.   He finally thinks he’s found an easy mark in an old man–an Indian.  Sitting by what the locals are pleased to call a road.

Baron spent some time in Spain after the war, and can sort of communicate with the decrepit geezer, who says he’ll take him back to his hut–and asks a few pointed questions about his luggage.   Baron figures he’ll dispose of the nosy Indian once they get there, and then he’ll get a ride to the nearest city.   Then he sees the old man’s hulking son, hears the old man say the gringo has valuables in his suitcases, and realizes–this isn’t a James Bond novel, and he’s not Ernst Stavro Blofeld or Dr. No, and if he were Auric Goldfinger he’d have just stayed in some neutral country counting his money.  Lebewohl, Herr Baron.  I would say Auf Wiedersehen, but I’ve read every Richard Stark novel and know we shall not meet again.

Grofield wakes up on the boat, and realizes Baron and the loot are gone, and also that he’s going to die really soon if he doesn’t get medical attention.   He figures Parker must be dead or in the hands of the law.  He also sets out to seek civilization, but he’s in much worse shape than Baron was, and he collapses out there.  And then–

He had been asleep or unconscious, he couldn’t tell which, and then suddenly he was awake again.  He rolled over on his back, unmindful of the stones, regardless of the sun’s light, and stared into the sky, and he thought he saw Parker coming down out of the sky on a cloud.

“Sacrilege, Parker,” he said aloud, and smiled, and closed his eyes.

And we roll back the clock in Stark fashion, to see the last day or so from Parker’s perspective. This is the third time Parker has been shot in the novels thus far–just a minor wound in the fleshy part of the leg, but it does nothing to improve his disposition.  The Feds are none too happy about the situation either.   Baron’s heading for Mexico, where they can’t touch him.   But Parker convinces them he can find Baron and drag him into their jurisdiction–he has no more intention of actually doing this than Baron had of providing the Russians with real intelligence.   He just needs a patch job on his leg, and a bit of help finding his goods–and Grofield.  In that order.

They take some time finding the boat, even with Navy ships and planes and a hundred men to look, and he rages at them, saying “You need a hundred men to zip your fly, you people. You and Karns’ crowd, you’re all alike. No one of you can do a damn thing, so you figure a whole crowd of you can do anything.” It’s probably the closest thing to a philosophical/political statement we’re ever going to get out of him.

So as we’ve already seen, Grofield is found–Parker is surprised to find him alive, but seeing that he is, he must be kept alive, free, and given his share of the loot (if recovered). Grofield can be of no possible use to him now, in his weakened state. There is no pragmatic purpose in sticking his neck out for him, making sure he goes with Parker and one of the Feds to look for Baron. Best case scenario, they both get free, they find the money, and Parker only gets half. He just thinks to himself it’s no good to leave Grofield there.

Technically, he’s not saving Grofield’s life but rather endangering it–he really should go to a hospital. But shortly after that, he’d be in a prison hospital. Freedom trumps survival. So when the requisitioned jeep arrives, Grofield’s coming along. He strains his acting abilties to their limit to appear ready for the journey. Parker, Grofield, and the Fed (named England, and man Westlake has a weird sense of humor sometimes) head out in search of Baron, who they providentially do not yet know is no longer among the living (or else Parker and Grofield would probably be in cuffs by now).

Parker spots the two Indians with the suitcases as they drive past, figures out what happened, and shortly afterwards ditches Mr. England, none too gently. The natives, when Parker comes back for his money, are none too friendly, but impressed by the pistol he points in their direction, and decide to settle for just the diamonds (that’s going to be one interesting day at a Mexican pawn shop), leaving the suitcases full of cash behind–Parker spotted where they were hidden by the roadside because–wait for it–one of the handles was sticking up out of the ground. He allows himself a brief smile.

So all that remains is to get back in the jeep, head for Mexico City (where you could lose a whole army division of gringos), get Grofield a doctor, put him up at a hotel with his share, conceal the cash in a pile of hastily bought souvenirs to pass customs, and the job is done. Parker won’t be in touch with the Feds or Karns–however it came to pass, the money he got is about what he was expecting (because two of his colleagues died on the job), and therefore there’s no shortfall to make good.

Would Karns know any better if Parker said he owed him (let’s say) 50k? Nope. And Karns has seen what happens to people who try to stiff Parker. But Parker doesn’t think like that–and he never liked the idea of getting paid off by Karns anyway. This is cleaner, neater–more professional. This is the pattern he feels comfortable with. You take what you need, and nobody owes anybody anything.

Grofield doesn’t quite agree with that sentiment–says he appreciates Parker going to all that extra effort for him–Parker doesn’t understand what there is to appreciate–“We were working together.” In that specific situation, he could not have behaved differently. Grofield gives up, and says he’ll be seeing Parker–and he will, but little does he know what a long strange trip home is waiting for him.

So that’s Parker’s Bond novel. And what have we learned? That you can put Parker into any situation, and he’ll remain himself. He adapts, but he doesn’t change his way of thinking. For all his seeming independence and individualism, Bond is an organization man, a hireling–something Parker could never be. For all his seeming amorality, Bond is a hero, a solid Victorian gentleman, packed with the same sterling values that motivated Tom Brown or Horatio Hornblower. Fleming just added a few scars and peccadillos to make him more interesting, more modern. Still the same old stock character underneath.

In Moonraker, the most shocking thing the villain does–the way he shows his hand, you might say–isn’t to try and nuke London, but to cheat at cards at a private club. Parker wouldn’t cheat at cards (because what’s the point?) but he wouldn’t be much bothered that anyone else did. Everybody’s got their line. Just be damned sure you’re not wearing a wire at the card game (well, that’s getting ahead of things).

This is basically Westlake’s commentary on Mr. Bond and his fictive ilk–their fault is in themselves, that they are underlings. But in one of those ironies that abound in the careers of genre fiction writers, he himself ended up writing a film treatment, decades later, that would become the seed for the Pierce Brosnan Bond vehicle, Tomorrow Never Dies (which came out shortly before Backflash, hence the quote up above). Tomorrow Never Dies was my favorite of the Brosnan Bonds (faint praise is praise nonetheless), before I ever heard of Donald Westlake. And maybe I’ll review that one someday. Once I’ve run out of books.

All through The Handle, they keep trying to push Parker into the role of a James Bond, and he keeps pushing back. “You’re talking like a man with a choice,” one of the Feds tells him–“I’ve always got a choice.” he responds. He wins, once again, because he knows what he is, and what he’s here to do, and you could stick him into a cowboy novel, a gothic romance, or a space opera–he’d still be Parker. There’s nothing else he can be. It’s neither a blessing nor a doom–it’s just a fact. Nobody puts a handle on Parker–not The Outfit, not the government, not even the lovely Crystal–though in the next book, one could say, he meets somebody who can handle him better than anyone else–and he might even like that.

But what’s Grofield, once you take him away from Parker, put him in a situation where people want him to be something other than a stage actor or an armed robber? We’re going to find out very shortly. Not quite yet, though. First, we’re going to meet another Westlake franchise character, written under another Westlake pseudonym (and yet still published by Random House). A detective–reluctant, naturally. But unlike Westlake’s previous shy shamuses, a trained professional. With a massive guilt complex. And a serious case of the blues. And a fetish for bricklaying, of all things.

In the meantime, I’ll finish with a short musical elegy to a character we often miss in the later Parker novels.   We can only wonder if Parker sometimes misses him too.  Adios, Salsa.

Editing this in, very belatedly–I just saw this French edition for sale on ebay–not that I’m buying it–but man, what a cover!  C’est magnifique.

$_57

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Filed under Donald Westlake novels, Parker Novels