I used to be able to look at myself and grin without giving a damn about how ugly it made me look. Now I was looking at myself the same way those people did back there. I was looking at a big guy with an ugly reputation, a guy who had no earthly reason for existing in a decent, normal society. That’s what the judge had said.
I was sweating and cold at the same time. Maybe it did happen to me over there. Maybe I did have a taste for death. Maybe I liked it too much to taste anything else. Maybe I was twisted and rotted inside. Maybe I would be washed down the sewer with the rest of all the rottenness sometime. What was stopping it from happening now? Why was I me with some kind of lucky charm around my neck that kept me going when I was better off dead?
From One Lonely Night, by Mickey Spillane.
Sometimes it was a bad thing to be devoid of small talk. If he’d had little meaningless conversations with her, the last few weeks he might have learned something he could use now. But Parker couldn’t stand meaningless conversations, couldn’t think of anything to say or any reason to say it.
The only time he talked about the weather, for instance, was when it had something to do with a job he was on.
From The Seventh, by Richard Stark
Why no image of the first edition up top this time? Mainly because after doing excellent cover art for the first six Parker novels, Harry Bennett fell a bit short for The Seventh.
That isn’t Parker on the cover–it’s Dan Kifka and his girlfriend Janey. Not looking at all as they do in the book (since Dan is generally naked, and while Janey is described as pink-complexioned, she isn’t shocking pink). Parker and the rest of the crew are on the back. Bennett’s emphasis is confusing, to say the least. But the text refers to the heist, and so does the text on the back of the book–and that’s an even more egregious error. Fact is, there’s almost as much text describing the heist on the front and back covers as there is inside the book.
The first thing to say about The Seventh, renamed The Split when reprinted by Gold Medal a short time later (to link in with the then-upcoming Jim Brown movie, which I’m not reviewing here, except to say they could have had something and they blew it) is that it’s not really a heist story. The heist itself takes up less than five pages in the Gold Medal reprint–and that’s including the entire getaway. The way the job came about, the advance preparation, introducing most of the main players, the execution, the getaway, Parker’s post-job hook-up–one chapter.
It’s a neat little job, fun to read about, and features yet another appearance by the justly beloved Madge and her Green Glen Motel–but it’s deliberately dealt with in a brisk matter-of-fact anticlimactic manner. No drama, no serious tension, no dialogue even, until they are well away from the scene of the crime–exactly the type of job Parker loves, and so rarely ever gets. If you picked up the Pocket edition because you’d been hankering for a great novel about a stadium heist, you got ripped off. It’s a short story, at best. And the least important part of the book as a whole.
But looking at the Gold Medal edition, featuring eye-catching artwork from the legendary Robert E. McGinnis, you knew what the story would be about. Parker’s money got stolen. Parker’s girl got killed (with a sword!). Parker’s coming after whoever did this. And yeah, he’s wearing a turtleneck, but they were very hip back then (Steve McQueen wore one in Bullitt), and the story is set in winter. It’s a minor flaw.
Though I’m not going to talk about the film adaptation, I would deduce that Fawcett’s Gold Medal paperback division, having passed on The Hunter when Westlake gave them first shot at it, had second thoughts after they saw that movie made into a major motion picture with Lee Marvin–and would have felt even more convinced of their error after learning yet another Parker novel was being adapted into a big Hollywood movie.
That probably did enter into the switch-over from Pocket (who would publish only one more Parker novel after The Seventh)–and getting a series of McGinnis covers would have been a nice bonus, though what Westlake and other crime writers of the era really loved about Gold Medal was money–they paid more than anyone else in that general publishing mileau, and as long as your book stayed in print, they’d keep paying. If they did another printing, you’d get another check–for copies printed, not copies actually sold. For a struggling wordsmith, this seemed like manna from heaven.
Who did Gold Medal authors ultimately owe for this princely largesse? None other than Frank Morrison Spillane, better known as Mickey, and his misanthropic manchild, Mike Hammer. Fawcett started Gold Medal in response to the staggering sales for Mike Hammer novels when reprinted in paperback–these novels invariably featuring lurid covers, dripping with sex and violence. Much like the one above. The Hammer novels would get published in hardcover by E.P. Dutton, then in paperback by Signet. The paperbacks were where the money really was, and there was an awful lot of money.
Hammer was a household name by the end of the 1940’s–just like Parker, they never did find a way to get him across convincingly onscreen, and just like Parker, the best film adaptation was the one that didn’t take him or his worldview at face value–John Boorman’s spectral neo-noir Point Blank in Parker’s case, and Robert Aldrich’s apocalyptic Kiss Me Deadly in Hammer’s. When it came to Hammer though, there were also endless parodies and spoofs–people loved these stories, but most didn’t take them that seriously.
I remember Jean Kerr’s “Don Brown’s Body” from Please Don’t Eat The Daisies (yes, women did read these novels, eyes rolling furiously as they did), but even better was the 12 minute ballet “Girl Hunt” from Vincente Minnelli’s The Band Wagon. Fred Astaire is too natty and nice to pull it off (that’s part of the joke, of course), but he really gives it all he’s got. “Now I knew who The Killer was, but it didn’t matter anymore–Killers have to DIE!” Betty Comden and Adolph Green really nailed what these books were all about, and why they were so popular, and why they were so equally ridiculous.
Gold Medal couldn’t have Spillane, but Spillane wasn’t all that prolific (with sales like that, he didn’t have to be). His readers would wait a long time between books–so all Gold Medal had to do was find writers who could hammer out (sorry, couldn’t resist) the same general type of sexy violent hardboiled noir with a touch of the gutter to it, hire artists who could visually communicate it was that kind of story, and even if they never got a mammoth best-seller like I, the Jury or Kiss Me, Deadly, they’d still score heavily on the rebound.
Many, myself included, would say a lot of the Gold Medal Spillane knock-offs, from Westlake and others, were easily superior to the originals. Spillane had a genuine knack for going to the jugular (and other parts of the male anatomy), but maybe because he’d hit it so big, so fast, he never really learned how to write (and often spoke derisively of those who did). His style is self-indulgent, turgid, narcissistic, and often downright preachy. Small wonder he and Ayn Rand formed a mutual admiration society. He couldn’t write convincing dialogue to save his life, he never knew much about plot, and he couldn’t care less about character. Great salesman–not much of a craftsman.
Still, when talking about The Mick, and finding more oblique ways of saying that his writing stunk, Westlake and others of that later generation of crime fiction authors never failed to acknowledge their debt to him. He’d blazed a trail, and they’d followed it. And what he genuinely had to teach them, they were avid to learn. What he taught them most of all was that if you link up sex and death, and really grab your readers with your first few paragraphs, draw them into an exciting criminal otherworld where ordinary moral values don’t hold sway, you can get away with almost anything.
I mean, this is the guy who wrote a novel called (I kid you not) The Erection Set, that ends with the hero (named ‘Dog’) happily screwing his lady love, who is directly based on the bottle-blonde model shown nude on the cover of the book, who Spillane was married to for a while–he brags about hooking up with her in the dedication–is this literature or performance art? Anyway, the hero has a .45 handgun right next to him on the bed while he is having carnal knowledge of this girl, because hey, guns go with everything. While he is still inside of her, he realizes this crazed sicko is behind them with a gun, and he just reaches around and blows the guy away with the .45, then goes back to screwing the bottle-blonde, because she’s even more in the mood now. Best as I can tell, there was no controversy when this best-selling book came out in 1972, at the height of the feminist movement. Boys will be boys. Bill O’Reilly wishes he was Mickey Spillane. Seriously, he does.
So to get back to the subject at hand, it’s no surprise that Gold Medal knew exactly how to sell a book that opens with a morally ambiguous ‘hero’ finding his girlfriend of the moment impaled with a sword, and then resolving to kill the bastard who did it. This was pretty much an ordinary day at the office for the folks at Gold Medal. But this was no ordinary ‘hero’, even by their standards. This was Parker. And Parker, to put it mildly, makes Mike Hammer look like an overaged boy scout with ‘roid rage.
The Seventh, (the title referring directly to Parker’s share of the loot and indirectly to the fact that this is the seventh book in the series) opens with the scene I’ve just described. But describing it and capturing the feel of it as Westlake/Stark lay it out, are two entirely different things. Parker is coming back from a beer run, after a three day orgy with the girl his colleague Dan Kifka set him up with for this stadium heist in Monequois, Westlake’s go-to fictional burg (this time a fairly big town–somewhere between Binghamton and Albany in size, I’d guess). He finds the girl, one Ellen Marie Canaday (Ellie for short), was killed during his ten minute absence–and worse–the money from the heist is gone.
Then two plainclothes cops (who Parker thinks of as Mutt and Jeff) come in and find him with the body–he realizes the killer called the police to try and frame him. He plays it cool, but when they come across the guns from the heist, he has to knock both of them out, and run for it, scooping up four pistols as he leaves. He figures it has to be one of his partners, but after he talks to Dan Kifka–sick in bed with a bad flu, and being ministered to by his luscious blonde coed girlfriend Janey, he gradually comes realize it must be some amateur who was after Ellie, and just came across the money by accident. He also realizes the killer is after him as well–somebody keeps taking shots at him from a distance, then running when he fires back.
Kifka seems to be an alternate take on Dan Wycza–a big blonde Hungarian American, who comes from the general area, drives a cab, and occasionally works as a driver on big heists. He met Janey, a Monequois College student, while driving his hack, and she basically picked him up–instant chemistry, and they’ve been going at it hot and heavy ever since, only coming up for air when she goes home to her folks. Kifka is maybe not the brightest guy Parker has ever worked with, but he’s pretty sharp overall, socially connected, and way off his best game because of the flu, and Janey distracting him, as she would most guys.
(Sidebar–Westlake obviously knew a fair number of ‘hunkies’ growing up. There’s a lot of them in Binghamton to this day–Binghamton Airport still has regular flights to Budapest–and you’ll remember that they figured rather heavily in Killing Time–Tim Smith ventures into Winston NY’s ‘Hunkytown’, to talk to its political boss. Not a big factor in this book, but the more ya know…..)
So the gang has to be gotten together, and informed that Parker lost their money–quite possibly his most embarrassing professional moment ever, which he takes with his usual good humor (yeah, right). The situation is pretty dire–the stadium heist was already big news, then a girl got murdered in a sensational headline-grabbing way (which the local paper tries to link to the Boston Strangler killings that occurred from 1962-64). Parker has been seen by two cops at the scene of the killing, and the cops have most of their guns, meaning the murder will be linked to the robbery. The smartest thing to do would be to get the hell out of Monequois, and forget the money, which comes to less than 20k for each of the seven participants.
But Parker wants them to stay and help him recover the loot. If anybody leaves, and the money is recovered, he forfeits his share. And if the ones who stay are caught, as one of them points out, there’s a good chance the cops will learn the identities of the ones that fled. Whatever they do, they have to do it together. And together, they opt to stay and look for this guy.
And this is a very stupid thing to do, and they all know it, and Parker most of all. And yet not only is he not running, he actually braced the police detective in charge of investigating Ellie’s murder, one William Dougherty, in his own home, and made veiled threats against his family–just to get the list of people the cops are looking at for the killing. Which Dougherty, no fool (and no coward either) handed over in exchange for Parker telling him what he knows about Ellie’s murder–but now, feeling somehow humiliated by the way Parker used his vulnerability as a family man against him, is out to get Parker (and doesn’t give a damn that he didn’t kill Ellie).
And this is the enduring puzzle of the book. Why is Parker so intent on finding this amateur, whose name and face he doesn’t know, who could be anywhere, anyone? Yes, the money, which he certainly needs after losing almost everything during the events of The Jugger. But it’s not that much, and he can always find another job. The risks of staying seem to greatly outweigh the potential rewards. The smart thing to do is run, and he knows this. He also knows that the seven of them looking for the cash are bound to attract more attention from the law than just him looking for the guy who is trying to kill him.
But Parker was aggravated. Somewhere in this dirty city there was a guy who had stolen two suitcases full of money from Parker. And shot at Parker twice. And killed the girl Parker was living with. And tried to set Parker up to take the fall.
What he wanted now was the appearance of logic and good sense. If the other six stayed active in this thing, then it was a simple sensible matter of getting the group’s money back. But if they all quit, Parker knew he himself wouldn’t quit, and he’d be going after the guy instead of the money.
He didn’t like to catch himself doing things that weren’t sensible, and that just aggravated him all the more.
Parker’s behavior here is arguably even more irrational than in The Jugger–the book Westlake frequently described as a failure, because he felt he hadn’t managed to explain Parker’s motivation for taking all the risks he did in that story. But here, in this passage, I think Westlake felt like he’d pulled it off–and he did. This is the Parker we remember from The Hunter–all his buttons have been pushed at the same time. Somebody stole from him, somebody tried to kill him and was obviously going to keep trying, somebody killed a woman he was actively involved with at the peak of his cyclical mating cycle (in a manner that bothers him more than he wants to admit), and that same somebody tried to get him taken or killed by the law.
All these separate yet related actions have combined to thoroughly upset Parker’s mental equilibrium, trigger a reaction over which he has no control, for which he has only one remedy. He won’t be able to rest easy or think calmly for even a moment until the man responsible for all this is dead. It isn’t revenge for what was done to him. It isn’t justice for Ellie. It isn’t self-preservation. It isn’t even the money. It’s the same thing he felt towards Mal Resnick–an itch he can only scratch by killing whoever caused it–and if Parker feels this way about you, he will keep coming until one of you is gone. That’s his nature, and he can’t change it. Not even if he wanted to.
It’s pretty clear from his reaction to seeing Ellie pinned to the bed that he didn’t have any real feelings towards her–but Westlake goes out of his way to tell us she’s not just another random hook-up either. Parker liked being around her in the period coming up to the heist, when he normally would have no real use for a woman–she was attractive, with long black hair, not fussy about her appearance–quiet and preoccupied with her own interests, so not bothering him with small talk–but once Parker came back from the job, his on-or-off libido fully engaged, she proved to be more than ready for him.
Seeing how lackadaisical Ellie was about everything else in life, Parker hadn’t expected her to be more in bed than a receptacle, but she surprised him. He had found the one thing that made her pay attention. For three days and nights they hardly left the bed at all, and the whole time she was nothing but stifled mumblings and hard-muscled legs and hot breath and demanding arms and a sweat-slick pulsing belly. All the passion that had been damned up inside Parker while his one-track mind had been concentrating on the robbery now burst forth in one long sustained silent explosion, and Ellie absorbed it all the way a soundproof room absorbs a shout.
This is one of the passages in the book nobody ever forgets. It’s very clear that neither Parker nor Ellie has ever had it this good in bed before. It’s like they’ve been waiting all their lives for this perfect matching–not love, on either side, but a physical and temperamental compatibility that can be even harder to find, particularly for life’s oddballs. It seems likely that had she lived, Parker would have suggested that Ellie come with him when he left Monequois, and it seems likely she’d have agreed–she’d have taken his dead wife Lynn’s place, and probably filled it better than Lynn ever did.
But he hadn’t formed any real bond with her, in spite of all this compatibility. Not enough time for that. He isn’t sad or angry that she’s dead. He doesn’t miss her. It’s more like the way she died irritated him–the pointlessness of it–and the way the thing that was building between them was cut short in full bloom. It’s something he could never possibly explain in words, and he’d never try, not even to himself. And that just irritates him more. He barely knew her, in anything other than the biblical sense–because she had no more use for pillow talk than he did. He has this bemused inner revelation that the seemingly inconsequential conversations people have, that he has always found a nuisance, actually have their uses–that’s how we humans learn about each other. Knowing nothing about her life, he has no way of knowing who might have ended it.
As little as Parker cares for her as a person, he still cares more than anyone else he meets during his quest for her killer–Kifka, who apparently dated her in his Pre-Janey era, feels nothing more than frustration that her busy love life caused them to lose the money from the heist. “Fuck her” is his reaction. She’s got no friends or family to mourn her, it seems. She was too much of a loner.
The very conscientious Detective Dougherty, after his encounter with Parker (who he knows is not the killer), asks to be put on the detail looking for the stadium heisters–because he wants to settle a personal score. He’s supposed to be finding Ellie’s killer–his superior sarcastically asks him doesn’t he care who bumped poor little Ellen Canaday, and he replies “Not for a minute.” Just another dead tramp to him.
And let’s be honest–that’s what most police detectives would feel in real life. This isn’t an 87th Precinct novel. It’s not a Mike Hammer novel either. Ed McBain’s Detective Steve Carella, who represents an ideal, would go after the killer relentlessly, feeling compassion for the slain girl (perhaps thinking how easily she could have been his beloved wife Teddy), and simply because it’s his job. He’s what policemen may aspire to be in real life, but those aspirations nearly always fall short. And not just for policemen.
Mike Hammer would go after him because–well, because it’s a Mike Hammer novel, and that means something always happens to justify the violence inside Hammer that never stops looking for an outlet. Hammer knows he’s a monster, and he beats himself up about it all the time, but the fact is he lives the life he lives because he needs to kill people on a regular basis, and this way he can do it without going to jail, and tell himself he was avenging some poor girl, or ridding the world of a crazed sicko, or stopping those lousy commies–but he really doesn’t care about any of that–not for a minute. His inner monologues never lead to change, because he doesn’t really want to change. He just wants to pretend that he does, sometimes.
But Parker will do what he does simply because it needs doing, and not ask questions that lead nowhere. His only goal is survival, and he survives by seeing things as they are. He doesn’t need pretty words to say. He’s kidding himself and his colleagues a bit about his motives here (and he knows it), but he isn’t seeking to justify anything he does–he’ll never understand the point of that. You do what you have to do, and after it’s done, there’s no need to think about what that makes you. It makes you alive, and it makes the other guy dead. Period. A wolf doesn’t need excuses for what he was born to be. That’s a human thing.
Early in the book, Parker is walking through a slum targeted for urban renewal, and Stark, seeing things from Parker’s perspective tells us “Within them, the cockroaches crawled and the rats chittered, but the humans were away, infesting some other neighborhood.” That’s how he sees most of us, and sometimes it’s hard to blame him.
Ellen Marie Canaday (hmm–Canaday–Canidae?–maybe not intentional–then again….) is at the center of everything that happens in this story, but only two people in it have any real feeling towards her–the man who killed her, and the man who’s out to kill the man who killed her. And you’d have to say the former had the stronger feelings by far.
We’re going to have to talk about this guy–whose name we never learn, even though we spend quite a bit of time in his head. But I’m getting to that point I’ve come to twice before–with The Hunter and The Jugger–where I am forced to recognize this is a two-parter. Just too much to talk about. A short book, that you can polish off in well under two hours–but that’s the most amazing thing about Stark–how much meaning he could pack into so few words.
If I was as good as Donald E. Westlake writing as Richard Stark, no doubt I could finish this review now. But alas–so see you next week.