Mackey leaped down beside him, empty hands closed into fists. “Shoot the cocksucker! What’s the matter with you?”
“No need,” Parker said. “And a noise could draw a crowd.”
Furious, Mackey said, “Don’t leave him alive, God damn it.” He acted as though he wanted to pull the shotgun out of Parker’s hands, and was restraining himself with difficulty.
Liss was out of sight now. The police had finished clearing out of here a little after ten, and the three in the trailer had gone to sleep around midnight, three hours ago, Liss on the sofa in the office, with the money and the guns. He could have just taken the money and left, but he hadn’t wanted Parker and Mackey behind him the rest of his life.
Apparently Mackey returned the feeling. “Parker,” he said, “that was a mistake. We could have afforded a little noise, not to have him around any more.”
Parker never saw any point in arguing over past events. He said, “Can you call Brenda?”
And he’s back, just like that. With no explanations of where he’s been, what he’s been doing all this time, how much time has actually passed. Well, that’s typical of him. He hasn’t changed a bit.
And some would say otherwise, that the Parker we see in the final eight novels is qualitatively different from the Parker of the first sixteen. Softer, they say. More human. Well, we humans say all kinds of silly things, playing our games with words, with time. We’re all obsessed with what used to be, and comparing it to what we have now. But he’s not one of us, and he doesn’t care what we’re obsessed with. All he cares about is what he can take from us. To Parker, something that happened a few seconds ago might as well have happened in the early Cambrian. While his present is taking place somewhere in the late Pleistocene. And there is no future, at all, at all.
So no, I don’t think Parker got any softer in the later books. I think he adapted to a changing environment, certainly. I agree there are some problems with these books, overall. Welcome though they are, fascinating though they are, deliciously entertaining though they are, I think they are not quite as good as the ones that came before them. There are several reasons for this, but most important among them is the fact that you can stretch even the most glorious of anachronisms too far.
Parker was a glorious anachronism from the very start. Westlake based him to a great extent on figures like John Dillinger–figures from the 1930’s. Dillinger went down bloody in 1934, almost exactly a year after Westlake was born–maybe seven years after Parker was born, going by references to his age in the books. For all we know, Westlake fondly imagined Dillinger was Parker’s father, the result of a one-night-stand. I wouldn’t even want to guess who he imagined the mother was.
But my point would be that even by 1962, the year he walked over the George Washington Bridge to kill Mal Resnick and get his money back from The Outfit, Parker was a relic of a bygone era, and recognized as such by many he came into contact with. It’s a bit like how later in life, P.G. Wodehouse would hear people saying Bertie and Jeeves were relics of the 1920’s, and he’d say no, they were really more out of the Edwardian era he’d grown up in–by the time they first appeared, they already seemed very dated and twee and out of step with the times, which was part of the joke. Anachronisms from the very start. Everything old is new again.
So the challenge for Richard Stark, now that he’s sprung once more full blown from the head of Donald Westlake, is how to make this particular anachronism jibe with the last few years of the 20th century, and the first few of the 21st. And that’s an interesting problem, on so many levels–you can imagine the creative juices flowing in response to it. Does Parker make sense anymore? Does he have a place in this world of digital cash, instantaneous information sharing, phones you carry around in your pocket (more and more of which have cameras in them)? How far can Parker adapt to all this? How far does he need to?
Used to be you could walk into a government office without any ID at all, and walk out with a Social Security Card. Parker gets a driver’s license in the first novel by filling out the form that doubles as the license itself, and then drawing the official stamp onto it with a pen. A crude forgery–that works fine, as long as nobody looks too closely. And so few people ever do.
Sure, people can still fake all kinds of things now, steal other people’s identities with a few mouse clicks, but that takes the kind of technical know-how someone like Parker could never master, because his mind doesn’t work like that. He can’t follow us into the digital world, and he doesn’t want to. But that world is going to impact him, whether he likes it or not. He is going to need people who understand how that world works, sometimes. Whether he likes them or not. And they better hope he does.
Or else they are going to find out in turn that the old wolf knows some really old tricks that will work in any time, any place. Parker is strictly analog, and the analog world is still the only world that really exists, you know. The only world that ever will exist, unless you want to get all spiritual and stuff. That’s the world you’re born into, and it’s the world you’ll die in. No matter how many lies you tell, no matter how many false identities you fabricate, or steal. Nobody can ever steal Parker’s identity. Because only he knows who and what he really is. We can’t follow him all the way into his world, either.
So that’s the point of the Final Eight–the way they show Parker adapting to the Information Age, but of course he’s been adapting to change ever since we met him. It’s just harder to write the stories now. Less room to maneuver. And there was a certain energy to the 1960’s (and the decades before it)–a mingling of old and new styles, clashes between old and new ways of thinking–you can feel it in just about any form of personal expression in that period. Obviously we still have those clashes now, but not nearly so clear-cut. The lines of scrimmage have gotten hopelessly confused.
Westlake can do a lot as a writer, but he can’t keep that old feeling alive once it’s gone. Him or anybody else working in genre. Crime fiction is not as good as it used to be. Fiction is not as good as it used to be. Not saying that to hurt anyone’s feelings, or to rant about how everything sucks now. Just stating a fact. Parker hasn’t gotten softer–we have.
But having said all this, I must confess, this first book of the renewed series could almost have taken place in the 60’s, with just a few minor tweaks. There’s very little sense of social and technological change, other than the problem that recurs throughout all the books–where can you find sufficiently large quantities of insufficiently well-guarded untraceable cash? The target in this case is a revival meeting, convened by a smooth-talking preacher with about as much religious sincerity as a used car salesman–how Elmer Gantry can you get? Not everything changes, even when you want it to.
And this retro feeling of Comeback probably stems from the fact that Westlake seems to have conceived the book around 1988, right after he finished working on the film adaptation of The Grifters–itself a very anachronistic story, based on Jim Thompson’s experiences in the Depression, moved to the early 60’s (for the novel), then moved again (for the film) to the late 80’s. A story about how people never change, when you get right down to it.
And there were some scandals in the late 80’s and on into the 90’s, involving famous televangelists, who often held rallies at stadiums (more in the third world than in the U.S., but they did build those mega-churches here eventually), and raised a lot of money, and then spent much of it on cool stuff for themselves, and Westlake saw where Parker might find some ready cash, come up with a working plan. Now he just had to come up with the inevitable complications to sour that plan.
But by the time he’d finished it, almost ten years had passed. If he’d finished it just a few years later, he’d have had to write it very differently. Nobody has a cellphone in this book. Not even a pager. Much of the book takes place late at night, in a mid-sized city, a twilight world, full of shadows. The shadows persist even in full daylight. One thing that never changes is how long it takes me to get to the synopsis when I’m doing Stark. Okay, here we go. Been a while.
This book is not only a comeback, but a throwback, though not completely so. Butcher’s Moon had abandoned the four part structure that was Stark’s trademark; where the chapter count keeps resetting, and each part has a specific job to do. The first two parts from Parker’s POV, setting up the central complication of the plot, the conflict to be resolved–then Part 3 moves around, each chapter from a different character’s perspective–and then back to Parker for Part 4 and the wrap-up.
And the point is, to show us Parker’s very clear and focused mind, and contrast it with the frequently more muddied self-deceiving perspectives of the people he’s working with or against. Comparative psychology. It still bugs me so many people read these books and don’t see that. I’ve seen the term ‘psychology free’ used to describe the Parker novels–in more than one language. Perception free, is what I’d call those readers. Oh, that was mean.
It’s like that here, except the Part 3 stuff happens in Part 2, and not all of those (mainly very short) chapters stay in the head of just one character, as with the earlier books. It’s still about comparative psychology, but the lines aren’t drawn so clearly–Westlake playing around with the form again, seeing how far he could stretch it. Not too far. But making Part 2 the Part 3 works, since so many of the main characters aren’t in Parker’s string, and we need to meet them a bit sooner this time.
Comeback is a throwback in one other notable way–starting with The Rare Coin Score, all the way back in 1967, Westlake had stopped opening the books with the now-legendary “When such and such happened, Parker did something” motif. That was the first one he did for Gold Medal, and I couldn’t say offhand if there was a particular reason for him not kicking off the books that way anymore. Maybe it was his idea, maybe an editor’s suggestion, and he just kept doing it that way once the series moved to Random House. But now he’s deliberately going back, bringing Parker into the present–and the classic opening of the early Pocket paperbacks returns with him.
When the angel opened the door, Parker stepped first past the threshold into the darkness of the cinder block corridor beneath the stage. A hymn filtered discordantly through the rough walls; thousands of voices, raggedly together. The angel said, “I’m not so sure about this…”
Parker is. This is a heist, and it’s too late to cancel it on account of cold feet, or pinions, or whatever. It’s a stadium heist–shades of The Seventh–it also has some marked parallels with the heist in Deadly Edge. In both those books the heist happens early in the story, doesn’t take up much time, and it’s really all about the aftermath. But this isn’t a sports event or a rock concert–it’s a very different blend of music and theater and rooting for the old home team–a sort of revival tent meeting writ large, anchored by a charismatic TV preacher, as had become commonplace by the 1980’s.
And what makes it a ripe target for armed robbers, as was the case with the heists in those earlier books is that it’s all cash–no credit cards. People pay cash to get in, they can give still more once they’re inside if the spirit moves them, and since they’ll be seen giving it by a huge stadium crowd, as well as in a filmed version of the event to be shown on TV later, it most certainly will move many of them. (Guess their bibles omitted Matthew 6:3–printer’s error?)
(This book is not an expose on the revival racket–that’s just background color– but Westlake was certainly drawing on his research for Baby Would I Lie? here, among other things. Evangelical preachers have a lot in common with hillbilly balladeers–you know who Jimmy Swaggart is related to, right? And he’s still reminding his more cosmopolitan readers that there’s an America out there in the hinterlands they might want to pay a bit more attention to.)
The angel’s name is Tom Carmody, his wings are part of a costume, and the way this all came about, we’re told via flashback, is that he works for the ministry of Rev. William Archibald, and he was a true believer in the good Reverend , until he got close enough to the top of the organization to know Archibald was a thieving whoring sumbitch who just happened to have a talent for projecting fake sincerity, and turned it towards preaching the gospel (yes, retrospectively, we may say he set his sights too low). Elmer Gantry with a TV show. Parker seems familiar with the type, since he says he thought they were all in jail by now.
One of the things the Archibald ministry does is work with released convicts, and this is how Tom met George Liss, a different flavor of sumbitch, the kind Parker sometimes works with, though never preferentially. Tom knew what George did for a living, and he started pitching the idea of stealing the proceeds from one of his stadium events, and then Tom could use his share to do real good, instead of just watching Archibald spend it on fancy limos, plush hotel rooms, and big-breasted women.
So Tom is the finger on the job, their man on the inside, and like most amateurs who get into the heavy, he’s a problem. But not nearly as big a problem as George Liss, and Parker has a bad feeling about this guy, who he’s never worked with before, though they’ve known each other slightly for some time. He’s skeptical about a stadium heist, says it’ll be just a lot of credit card receipts.
“Not this one,” Liss said, and the left side of his face smiled more broadly. A sharpened spoon handle had laid open the right side, in a prison in Wyoming, eleven years ago. A plastic surgeon had made the scars disappear, but nothing could make that side of his face move again, ever. Around civilians, Liss usually tried to keep himself turned partially away, showing only the profile that worked, but among fellow mechanics he didn’t worry about it. With the slight slurring that made his words always sound just a little odd, he said “This one is all cash. Paid at the door.”
For reasons that probably have a lot to do with the IRS, the people who come to these stadium events Archibald holds each have to donate twenty bucks in cash at the door–a ‘love offering’–and they are encouraged, as already mentioned, to give more once they’re inside. The gate, Brenda Mackey observes, almost sensuously, will be around 400k. But with the additional love offerings, it could be close to a million (as matters arrange themselves, all they get is the gate–still a nice haul).
The Mackeys, Ed and Brenda, are back in this one, and if all you’d read of this series is the Final Eight, you’d think they played a much bigger role in the First Sixteen. Ed Mackey, of course, had been seemingly killed at the end of Deadly Edge, and the return of him and Brenda in Butcher’s Moon was never explained in that book. And here we are, twenty-three years later, and it’s still not explained. Going to have to wait another five years for that explanation, though if you’re paying attention, you can figure it out from what happens in this book.
With the exception of the book after this one, we really don’t see any of Parker’s more trusted confederates from the First Sixteen in the Final Eight, and the most important ones don’t appear at all. No Handy McKay, no Alan Grofield, no Stan Devers. Maybe dead, maybe retired, maybe imprisoned, maybe they missed the time warp and are still back in the early 70’s, but whatever the reason, they did not make the cut. In other words, Westlake has decided to weed out the fellow heisters Parker had the closest thing to an actual friendship with. Well, the closest thing to a more than purely professional relationship, put it that way.
So to me, this indicates we’re actually seeing a colder, less accessible, less human Parker in these new books, not a ‘softer’ one. A Parker who cares about himself, and Claire (rarely seen until the very end), and that’s it. He sticks his neck out for no one. We can talk more about this when reviewing upcoming books, but some of Stark’s romanticism has worn a bit thin around the edges since we last saw him. The novel after this has a bit of an old home week feeling, but after that, when some pro from Parker’s past shows up, it’s generally bad news for whoever that is. Should have stayed back in the past. No room at all for sentiment anymore in the Stark Lands, not that there was much to start with.
George Liss is to some extent a reworking of characters like George Uhl–half a pro; dangerous, effective, but always looking for a chance to take it all for himself and kill his partners so they don’t come looking for him afterwards. A mad wolf. His physical description is quite similar to Uhl’s, (Uhl–Tall and very thin, with receding black hair” Liss–“a tall, narrow, black-haired man with a long chin”).
I am now realizing that he also closely resembles Parker’s most trusted–and dangerous–associate of all. “He was long and thin and made of gristle, and his stiff dark hair was gray over the ears.” Handy McKay. With half his face frozen. And no loyalty, to anyone. And all three men sound rather similar to Westlake himself as a younger man. And to John Dortmunder, of course. I don’t know what any of this means either. Back to the synopsis.
In spite of Tom’s jitters, in spite of him having told his girlfriend about the heist, in spite of them only getting about half of what they were hoping, the job is a success. Almost 400k, split three ways. Using the old trick of laying low close to the scene of the crime, all three men are holed up in a construction trailer they placed right outside the stadium some weeks before, padlocked and seemingly abandoned. They just have to wait for the cops to finish checking to see if any of the attendants have the cash, and leave–then stow the cash at a pre-arranged spot, and wait for the roadblocks to be lifted. It’s that simple, but Parker has learned from hard experience to assume it will never be that simple.
Parker wakes up to find Liss pointing a shotgun at him–which fails to go off. Because Parker unloaded the shotguns when nobody was looking. Liss makes a run for it, without the cash. Parker has reloaded the shotgun, is watching him run through the empty parking lot, has a clear shot at his retreating form–and he doesn’t take it.
Ed is disgusted with him. Parker’s rationale–that gunfire might attract attention, bring the cops back, when they don’t have a car available to them–is that really a sufficient rationale for letting George scarper, when clearly he’s going to go on thinking of that money as his, and will regroup to come after it again? They’ll have to get rid of the shotguns (too hard to conceal), and they have no other weapons.
We’ve seen this kind of identity puzzle before in these books. Parker doesn’t always kill when you’d expect him to. But this is a particularly egregious act of ‘mercy.’ George Liss was working with Parker. He tried to kill Parker and take Parker’s share of the loot. That’s a clear and unambiguous death sentence in the world of Richard Stark. Stark will look into Parker’s mind, just a short time later, and see Parker thinking that he needs to see George Liss dead. Liss knows very well that Parker will be on his trail the rest of his life, if he doesn’t get Parker first.
So why not take a shot at Liss when he’s unarmed and fleeing? Granted, a shotgun isn’t the best distance weapon, but even a non-fatal hit would stop him long enough to finish the job. Liss himself can’t understand why Parker doesn’t shoot–we’re left in no doubt he’d have pulled the trigger with no hesitation, if he were in Parker’s position. So would Ed Mackey. So would most guys in their profession. Shoot first, ask questions later.
So apart from the undeniable fact that the story hangs on George Liss escaping the consequences of his betrayal for the time being–why didn’t Parker pull that trigger? Because in that moment, the trigger inside his head was only half-pulled. It was all too sudden. He hadn’t processed it yet. Parker only kills when he has to. Liss is no longer an immediate threat. Gunfire might attract attention. Parker’s killing instinct hasn’t been engaged. If Liss came back a short time later, saying it was all just a big misunderstanding, Parker would cut him down without hesitation.
But this momentary hesitation, mere seconds after George’s failed doublecross, is perfectly in character for him. He needs to consider what happened, and why, before he takes on another deadly vendetta. The trigger in his head has to be completely pulled. Several times we’ve seen him shoot at a fleeing enemy, but these were guys he’d already decided needed to die, whether they ran or not. It’s not mercy. It’s just how his mind works.
It won’t take him long at all to come to the same conclusion about George Liss, but we can sympathize with Mackey’s frustration–sometimes Parker’s weird instincts can be a liability. Sometimes it’s better to act quickly–and sometimes it isn’t. Parker’s strengths are bound up in his weaknesses. So are Mackey’s–he would never have thought to unload the shotguns. And Liss never thought to check the gun before he fired it. Over the long run, it’s better to think before you shoot.
But whether Parker was right or not, they still have to proceed with the plan–when Brenda shows up with their ride, they take their leave–blowing the trailer (and the shotguns) to bits as they go, to remove any forensic evidence that might trace back to them. The police are drawn to that noise, for sure, but too late.
One final complication–three guys came up to the trailer while they waited, checking it out, then leaving. They don’t look like law. Parker thinks to himself they’re dogs who have lost the scent. As we learn later on, they never really had it to start with.
So they have the cash, they have a car, but they also have a problem–the entire town is in lock-down mode. Most honest people are in bed. All the outgoing roads will be watched. They can’t go back to their motel, because Liss might be there waiting for them. They can’t check into a new motel in the middle of the night without looking suspicious. Parker says they need an all-night gas station. Tank is full. Brenda’s possibly the best getaway driver Parker’s ever worked with, and that’s saying something.
Ed is puzzled. Brenda figures it out immediately. Earlier in the book, we hear Parker thinking that he knows why Ed always brings his woman on jobs with him, something Parker never does. Brenda is the brains of that two-person outfit. And the single best thing about this book, which I’ll be talking more about next time.
But in the meantime, in-between time, they find that all night gas station (Brenda the Brain spotted it earlier, made a mental note). It’s by the interstate, so Ed and Parker get out of the car and scope things out–the exits have squad cars parked by them, waiting, but the cops can’t see the station from where they are. Just before that, Parker thought he saw something, far behind them, in the rear-view mirror, but he wasn’t sure. Too dark.
Brenda goes in alone, playing the helpless girl with car trouble, and then Parker and Mackey come in, and all of a sudden the kid manning the station realizes they’re taking it over for the night–he’s locked up in a windowless room, with a magazine–and no bathroom. (Better off than that kid in The Score, a book that resembles this one in many respects–except this kid hadn’t just left his girlfriend’s warm bed, and he’s going to end up with more than just a bad head cold).
The station wagon with the money they park on the hydraulic lift in the garage. Camoflauged. The station is shut down–with any luck, nobody will wonder why until they’re gone. In the morning, they can seek alternate lodgings, alternate transportation, wait for the right moment to shake the dust of this town from their feet. Parker is going to need to find George Liss at some point, but the getaway is still at the top of the agenda.
Ed and Brenda sleep in the car, while Parker naps a little on a chair in the office. He wakes up right around dawn–there’s a police car outside. Just one cop. Uniform doesn’t fit him right. It’s Liss. He sees Parker. He unbuckles his gun holster. Parker is unarmed, unless you count a wrench. End of Part One.
And end of this Part One as well. Short book, I can do the rest next time. Actually, the first edition is almost 300 pages, but the print is large, and the pages small–Mysterious Press decided to try to invoke the dimensions of the old paperback originals here, except you’d still need a pretty big pocket to fit this book in.
The cover art for the Final Eight is mainly nowhere near the standard of the First Sixteen, though some of the foreign editions were pretty good, and there is one outstanding exception with regards to the first U.S. editions. I’ve always been a bit iffy about the concept of Parker as an angel with a shotgun–carried over from the first US edition to the University of Chicago reprint (except now he’s got an assault rifle, which makes no sense at all). Carmody’s the one with the wings–first fake ones, then the metaphorical kind–or metaphysical.
I like the UK edition with the stadium. Brief and to the point. Like Richard Stark. And so very unlike your average long-winded skirt-chasing televangelist. Well. Glass houses. We all have ’em. And we’ll be seeing a fair few of them. Next time. Bring stones.