Tag Archives: Nobody Runs Forever

Review: Dirty Money, Part 3

hunter_germany_1

Parker took the Bobcat from his pocket and put it on the table, then left it there with his hands resting on the tabletop to both sides, not too close.  “That’s who I am,” he said.  “You Oscar’s brother?”

The guy stared at the gun, not afraid of it, but as though waiting to see it move.  “No,” he said, not looking up.  “I got no brothers named Oscar.”

“Well, how important is Oscar to you, then?  Important enough to die for?”

Now the guy did meet Parker’s eyes, and his own were scornful.  “The only thing you’re gonna shoot off in here is your mouth,” he said.  “You don’t want a lotta noise to wake the dog.”

Parker picked up the Bobcat and pushed its barrel into the guy’s sternum, just below the rib cage.  “In my experience,” he said, “with a little gun like this, a body like yours makes a pretty good silencer.”

The money inside the boxes was all banded into stacks of fifty bills, always of the same denomination.  The bands, two-inch-wide strips of pale yellow paper, were marked DEER HILL BANK, DEER HILL, MA.  The stacks made a tight fit inside the boxes.

It turned out to be easiest to dump a box over, empty the money onto the floor of the van, and then stuff it all into the Hefty bags.  The emptied box, with its cover restored, would be stacked with the others in the bed of the pickup.

As they worked, McWhitney said, “It’s a pity about this stuff.  Look how beautiful it is.”

“It’ll tempt you,” Parker said.  “But it’s got a disease.”

April 27th, 2008.  Not quite three years shy of a half century from when Donald Westlake first showed Lawrence Block a draft of The Hunter, Richard Stark got his last New York Times book review, courtesy of Marilyn Stasio.

The nice thing about the rather nasty stories Richard Stark (a k a Donald E. Westlake) writes about a career criminal named Parker is that none of the significant characters is ever innocent. Which is why it’s so easy to laugh when their intricate schemes begin to unravel, as happened in “Nobody Runs Forever” after Parker’s gang stashed the loot from a bank job in the choir loft of an abandoned country church — and couldn’t get it out. Although he’s still being pursued by the vigilant detective Gwen Reversa and the odd reporter, Parker gives criminality another shot in DIRTY MONEY (Grand Central, $23.99), under pressure from Sandra Loscalzo, an aggressive bounty hunter who’s even less trustworthy than the killers and con men she stalks for a living. Everyone in this merry misadventure ends up at Bosky Rounds, a quaint bed-and-breakfast that looks like the cover art for Yankee magazine — something to bear in mind on leaf-peeping excursions to picturesque New England villages.

Sometimes I’ve wondered if Stasio was reading the same books as me, but no two people have ever read the same book, any more than one person reads the same book twice.  (I come from the Heraclitus school of book reviewing).

Me, I don’t think Stark, at any time, is encouraging us to laugh at Parker–with him, maybe.  To sport a rueful grin at how the best laid plans of wolves and men gang aft agley, absolutely.  That goes with the territory. That’s what the heist subgenre is all about, going back to The Asphalt Jungle, or if you please, Jason and the Argonauts.

But if that grin doesn’t come with a glimmer of recognition as to how this insight applies just as much to us and our ostensibly more honest endeavors, you sure haven’t learned much from these books.  I’m all for entertainment, but entertainment that doesn’t on some level enlighten probably isn’t worth the time it took to peruse.  I mean, unless you’re planning to live forever.

Stasio couldn’t know that this was the last we’d hear from Richard Stark, that Donald E. Westlake would be dead in a little over eight months.  He sure wasn’t making any plans to live forever.  But he was making plans.   Right to the end.

I agree with her that nobody in these novels is ever innocent–and how many in real life ever are?  I’m not.  Why, may I ask, are so many innocent people enjoying stories about murder, mayhem, vengeance, betrayal and pillage?  And I don’t just mean on cable news.  Or in the bible.

I don’t rule out that there’s truly innocent people in the world, or at least truly good people, but doesn’t seem to me they’d constitute much of an audience.  Whether they were shelling out thirty-five cents for The Hunter in ’62, or $23.99 for Dirty Money in ’08, the publisher would go bankrupt if the readership was composed of saints.

No, I think the enduring popularity of these books attests to the fact that we know (and the saints most of all)  that we’re none of us all that innocent, and we’re still waiting nervously for some kind of law to catch up with us, and it will, never fear.  (My money’s on thermodynamics.)

But in the meantime, we’ve still got plans.  Most of which don’t work out half so well as Parker’s.  Truth is, Ms. Stasio, we’re not laughing at him at all.  We’re envying him.  His coolness under pressure, his lack of envy, fear, prejudice, treachery.  His matter-of-fact reaction to every setback, coupled with a determination to find the problem and fix it.  His patience.  His pragmatism.  His perseverance.  In short, his professionalism.

It seems perverse to say out loud, but these books have been at least as much about virtue as vice.  Whatever you do in life, do it well, as if how you perform your chosen task matters no less than your compensation for performing it, if indeed you get any.  Most of us don’t have such exciting jobs as Parker, to be sure.  But hey, we get retirement plans and health insurance.  Some of us.  For now.

If we’re laughing at anyone in these books, it’s those of inferior professionalism, or none at all.  Comparing their garrulous gamesmanship to the taciturn protagonist who is playing at nothing, because life isn’t a game, and neither is death.  That’s been the point of Parker, all along.  Made better in some books than others, and this last book is far from the best, but that’s because the professional behind them all is starting to lose his grip on the wheel.  Yet he refuses to call it a day.  He’ll know it’s time to lay down tools when the whistle blows.  Not before.

This is a flawed faltering book at points, but compelling all the same, like the twenty-three before it.  In Part Four, feeling the law closing in on him, that part of Westlake that is Richard Stark produces what I’d call, on reflection, a tightly-focused novella within a novel–to close out the day’s work.  Laying the groundwork for more books, that we’ll never read, because the whistle blew.  In Mexico.  And wouldn’t you know I’d get to this one during Dia de los MuertasHay más tiempo que vida.  Adelante.

Part Four opens with Parker checking to see if anybody picks up at Julius Norte’s number in Florida–the guy who did such a good job making him into Daniel Parmitt, in Flashfire.  He’s dead, of course, but maybe somebody else is doing the high-end ID work there now?  Nope.  That office is closed.

He reaches Ed Mackey, through channels of course–Mackey doesn’t have a direct phone number.  (Remind us again why Parker does?)  Mackey gets back to him at the good old gas station phone booth near Colliver Pond, and hey, does this gas station have free road maps and a uniformed attendant who chirps “Fillerup?” and then he cleans your windshield?  Because if they’ve got an actual working phone booth, really should make the whole retro experience complete.

Mackey isn’t working for the time being–says Brenda wants him to stay home (what happened in Breakout might be leaning both of them in the direction of semi-retirement, but it’s nothing definite).   Parker says he just wants to know if Mackey knows anybody else as good as Norte.  Mackey says he’ll ask around, and a day later, he’s got the name of a guy outside Baltimore, who seems well-regarded in their circle.  Kazimierz Robbins.  Not a name you hear every day.

He fronts as an artist.  You call him, tell him you need a portrait painted.  You mention a name of somebody he knows, and it’s understood–you want a special portrait.  A new identity.  And for that, you really do need an artist.  Though there has probably never been anyone less sympathetic to the artistic temperament than Parker.

“You understand, my studio is not in my home.”

“Okay.”

“I use the daylight hours to do my work.  Artificial light is no good for realistic painting.”

“Okay.”

“These clumpers and streakers, they don’t care what the color is.  But I care.”

“That’s good.”

“So my consultations are at night, not to interfere with my work.  I return to my studio to discuss the client’s needs.  Could you come here tonight?”

“Tomorrow night.”

“That is also good.  Would nine o’clock be all right for you?”

“Yes.”

“Excellent.  And when you come here, sir, what is your name?”

“Willis.”

“Willis.” There was a hint of “v” in the name.  “We will see you then, Mr. Willis,” he said, and gave the address.

After that, he talks to Meany, at Cosmopolitan Beverages, about the deal that will make it possible for Parker to pay for his new identity and still have something left to live on.  The big boss, Joseph Albert, has okayed it.  They need to see a sample of the cash–say ten thousand, just to make sure this is the bank money.  Parker says fine, but they’ll pay one thousand to see the ten thousand, because that’s the deal.

He calls McWhitney, tells him to make the exchange, gives him the contact info, hangs up.  He’s made all these calls from that same gas station phone booth.  You’d think somebody there would notice what a regular customer he is.  At some point, he needs to upgrade more than just his ID.  Payphones can be tapped, particularly if you keep using the same one. (Also, how come he never hears a voice telling him he has to cough up more quarters?  Even the phone company is afraid to ask him for money.)

Claire has to drive him to see Robbins.  He lives in a small town called Vista, which does not exist, near Gunpowder Falls State Park, which does.  His studio is in a space that used to be a hardware store. Robbins is there, older, arthritic, tall, thin, slightly bent–Stark tells us he looks like a praying mantis.  Claire opts to stay in the car, but Robbins notices her, says it’s well she did not enter, since beautiful women are always a distraction to him.  He tells Parker to call him Robbins, since he dislikes hearing Americans mangle his first and true name.

As they walked down the long room, on an old floor of wide pine planks, Parker said, “Why didn’t you change the first name?”

“Ego,” Robbins said, and motioned for Parker to sit.  “Many are Robbins, or my original name, Rudzik, but from earliest childhood Kazimierz has been me.”  Also sitting, he leaned forward onto his knees, peered at Parker, and said, “Tell me what you can.”

“I no longer have an identity,” Parker said, “that’s safe from the police.”

“Fingerprints?”

“If we’re at the point of fingerprints,” Parker said, “it’s already too late.  I need papers to keep me from getting that far.”

“And how secure must these be?” He gave a little finger wave and said, “What I mean is, you want more than a simple forged driver’s license.”

“I want to survive a police computer,” Parker said.  “I don’t have a passport; I want one.”

“A legitimate passport.”

“Everything legitimate.”

Robbins leaned back.  “Nothing is impossible,” he said.  “But everything is expensive.”

“I know that.”

Robbins says it will cost two hundred thousand dollars.  Cash.  Parker figured that would be about it.  Half in advance, of course.  And even the former Mr. Rudzik (a Polish name) is surprised to learn Parker brought the cash with him.  “You are serious!” he exclaims.  Well, yeah.

So Robbins is Polish, he grew up under communism, learned his trade well, still has contacts over there.  Infant mortality under communism was higher than Marx and Lenin would have liked to believe.  So he can find some short-lived boy, born around the same time as Parker, give Parker the identity the child never had the chance to use himself.  A cover story must be concocted to explain why Parker has no eastern European accent (ever wondered what accent he does have?)

He’ll apply for a Social Security card–protective coloration–one is reminded how Joe Sheer laughed for days when he got his card in the mail, for a name he’d made up. He laughed hard, but not long.

To get all this done, to make the new identity stick, he’ll need to pose as a Canadian representative of an American company.  Which means he’ll need to work with Cosmopolitan Beverages again.  Getting to be a habit.  He gives Robbins Meany’s phone number (Robbins would have preferred his email).  Parker and Claire have worked out a new first name for him, and Robbins will attend to the family name.

He goes out and gets the duffel–presumably the same one Tom Lindahl picked up at a mall in upstate New York.  Full of cash from a racetrack.  Parker’s entire share of that job.  He’s going all in on this.  He passes portraits of celebrities Robbins has painted, from photographs we assume, to maintain the front.  They all look guarded, watchful.

That’s Saturday.  Monday, he’s driving to Bayonne, home of Cosmopolitan Beverages, and Stark has a positive genius for capturing the inimitable ambience of that highly scenic locale, but we’ve covered that already in Firebreak.  He’s driving himself this time, since it’s a short hop.  He passes somebody with a bumper sticker saying DRIVE IT LIKE YOU STOLE IT, which to Parker means drive so the law won’t notice you.

He doesn’t have an appointment, but he’s never stood on ceremony when it comes to mobsters of any stripe.  The guy at the reception desk tries to give him the brush off, and Parker doesn’t hit him, just tosses the kid’s copy of Maxim on the floor, so it’s not as if he hasn’t acquired a modicum of social veneer.

He and Meany are still sparring whenever they meet.  Meany’s going to enjoy this bout in particular.

Meany said, “What can I do for you today?”

“You liked the sample.”

“It’s very nice money,” Meany said.  “Too bad it’s radioactive.”

“Do you still want to buy the rest of it?”

“If we can work out delivery,” Meany said.  “I got no more reason to trust you than you got to trust me.”

“You could give us reason to trust each other,” Parker said.

Meany gave him a sharp look.  “Is this something new?”

“Yes. How that money came to me, things went wrong.”

Meany’s smile was thin, but honestly amused. “I got that idea,” he said.

“At the end of it,” Parker told him, “my ID was just as radioactive as that money.”

“That’s too bad,” Meany said, not sounding sympathetic.  “So you’re a guy now can’t face a routine traffic stop, is that it?”

“I can’t do anything,” Parker told him.  “I’ve got to build a whole new deck.”

“I don’t get why you’re telling me all this.”

“For years now,” Parker told him, “I’ve been working for your office in Canada.”

Meany sat back, ready to enjoy the show. “Oh yeah?  That was you?”

“A guy named Robbins is gonna call you, ask for some employment records.  I know you do this kind of thing, you’ve got zips, you’ve got different kinds of people your payroll office doesn’t know a thing about.”

“People come into the country, people go back out of the country,” Meany said, and shrugged.  “It’s a service we perform.  They gotta have a good-looking story.”

“So do I.”

Meany wants to know why he’d agree to this.  Parker says it’s a finder’s fee, for bringing him this nice little bump in corporate earnings for the fiscal year.  If Meany won’t help him out, he can go to somebody else in Bayonne with all that nice money.  Cosmopolitan doesn’t have a monopoly on this kind of thing.

And why should this arrangement cultivate trust between them, Meany wants to know.

“You’re gonna know my new straight name,” Parker pointed out. “And how I got it.  So then we’ve both been  useful to each other, so we have a little more trust for each other.  And I know, if sometime you decide you don’t like me, you could wreck me.”

“I don’t like you.”

“We’ll try to live with that,” Parker said.

It’s a deal, if not quite an amicable one.  As to the exchange, two million in crisp new bank notes for two hundred thousand in more experienced money Parker & Co. can actually spend, Parker says they’ll use the ferry between Orient Point and New London.  Meany’s guy drives onto it with the 200k, somebody else drives if off the ferry, he rides back and forth until the car comes back with the two mil.  Parker can’t get his new ID if Meany doesn’t get the bank money.

(This creates a new level of vulnerability, as Parker noted.  He’s compromising his independent status, and with the very type of organization he’s fought two bloody wars with in past. But, you could argue, Meany already sent a hit man to the house at Colliver Pond, a few years back. He’s already got a handle on Parker, if he wants to  use it.

If Parker can abandon the house, as he might yet have to do, he can abandon a burned identity, and he has, many times before.  Meany knows from personal experience that if you shoot at Parker, you only get to miss once.  He was lucky to survive the last time. And he might have use for Parker in future.  But still–it’s a compromise Parker has never had to make before.  To even pretend to be somebody’s employee.  It’s hard to see how this ends well, but we’ll never see how it ends.)

Parker goes back to Claire, and gets some more money from one of the empty summer houses he uses as safe deposit boxes.  We’re told more than half the money from the racetrack heist is spent–come again?  Parker and Lindahl got a bit under 200k from Gro-More.  Lindahl packed the duffels, while Parker dealt with complications.  Tom was in a hurry, no time to count it out, but it’s hard to figure he would have given Parker much more than half the score, and Parker just gave Robbins 100k. Well, I mentioned the creative accounting already.  I make far worse errors when I’m tired. Some people don’t need to be tired to make fatal errors.

Claire tells Parker McWhitney left a message on their machine–reading between the lines, he’s calling for help.  Oscar Sidd is back, and McWhitney has the money.  If he doesn’t get there soon, the entire deal is shot.  He can feel this pushing the button in his head, the one that makes him kill, but he holds it in check.  He can’t afford a war right now.  But there’s going to be a skirmish.

He just wants a ride to the city, but Claire insists on driving him to Long Island–have to get to the bar before it closes.  He tells her to drop him off a block away.  She tells him she’ll have dinner in Manhattan, maybe catch a late movie, and he can call her cell if he needs anything.  It’s becoming increasingly clear Parker is the only person he knows who doesn’t have a cellphone yet.

He’s come heeled, but with his usual minimalist flair.  The final gun image.

Beretta_Model_21_In_Hand

(Beretta Bobcat .22, fires seven shots, weights twelve ounces.  Considered a ladies gun in some circles. Parker never moved in those circles.  Keeps it in a box of Bisquick.  Well, that tracks.  Imagine, if you will, how small it would look in his hand.  Just a tool to him.  Second Amendment?  What’s that?)

The bar is called McW, and it’s never been a runaway success, which is why the man it’s named after keeps resorting to armed robbery.  Parker can see some guys waiting outside in a Chevy Tahoe.  Waiting for the bar to close.  He wants to go over there and start shooting.  He controls it. He goes inside.

Other than McWhitney, there were four men in the bar.  On two stools toward the rear were a pair of fortyish guys in baseball caps, unzippered vinyl jackets, baggy jeans with streaks of plaster dust, and paint-streaked work boots; construction men extending the after-work beer a little too long, by the slow-motion way they talked and lifted their glasses and nodded their heads.

Closer along the bar was an older man in a snap-brim hat and light gray topcoat over a dark suit, with a small pepper-and-salt dog curled up asleep under the stool beneath him as he nursed a bronze-colored drink in a short squat glass and slowly read the New York Sun; a dog walker with an evening to kill.

(That could be me, except for the topcoat, the suit, the snap-brim hat, and I generally prefer a big dog.  Anyway, they don’t let dogs inside the bars in New York anymore.  And I wouldn’t use the Sun to wrap fish, even if it still existed outside cyberspace.  But there’s a time-stamp for you, if you care–that ill-fated rag started up in April 2002, folded a few months before Westlake did.  We already knew this story began after 9/11.  Not long after, going by the rapid response to the bank heist.  Fall of ’02 at the earliest, ’03 at the latest.  That’s where this Triptych begins and ends.)

Parker sees a heavy-set guy sitting alone at a table, in a tweed sports jacket, nursing a glass of club soda.  He’s not making it hard.  Parker tells Nelson he’ll have a beer, and sits down across from the guy.  You can see their initial exchange up top.  You can imagine how it would feel to have an angry Parker staring at you across a table, then shoving a gun into your ribs.  If the guy doesn’t wet himself, it’s only because he’s not drinking beer.

McWhitney comes over, and Parker tells him to take the guy’s gun out of his coat–a .357 Glock.  Size doesn’t matter, if you don’t know how to use it.  Or when.

The inside man being neutralized, McWhitney closes up.  When the coast is clear, Parker goes outside to the Tahoe, and shoots Oscar Sidd dead with the Glock.  The two guys with him decline to take exception to this.  Parker goes back inside, tells the heavy-set man that Oscar’s lying outside with a slug from his gun in him; he might want to do something about that, in case the cops show up.

Parker asks to use McWhitney’s phone, and calls Claire’s cell.  With bridge & tunnel traffic what it is, she’s probably not even  halfway to the city.  Tells her to come back, they’ll have dinner in the area, spend the night.  He’s not angry anymore.  (Horny, one would guess, but Claire can attend to that.)

Next morning, Parker goes to the bar, which is closed, but Nels is there anyway.  He’s reading the Daily News (that’s still around).  Also watching the TV news.  They just found Nick’s body in MA (and a few boxes of cash hidden under hymnals, though they don’t mention that).  So basically, Part Four has all been one long final Stark Rewind.  And it’s not done yet.

Nels is nervous.  About the hymn books he still has, about the truck with Holy Redeemer Choir painted on it, about anything that could link him to what happened over there.  So they deal with all that.  The gent who painted the words on the van is just as happy to paint them out again, no questions asked.  They pack the cash in Hefty bags, and the time passes amicably.  Time to get to the ferry soon.  Five chapters left.

McWhitney didn’t like they were bringing Sandra in for the exchange, but Parker wants somebody on their team who Meany’s people don’t already know about.  He doesn’t say out loud that she’s smarter and more effective than Nels, but that goes without saying at this point. It also helps that they have each others’ cell numbers, and again, Sandra warns of a tail–Oscar’s dead, but the people he brought in as back up aren’t ready to give up yet.

The exchange on the ferry goes fine.  Much smoother than a different mob-related exchange on an elevated subway platform–how many years ago?  Just about forty, going by the calendar, but Parker never paid much attention to those.

Job’s finally done.  They’ve got 200k in cash they can spend.  Parker can get his new ID stamped by Cosmopolitan.  Nels can just tend bar for a while (and maybe become Parker’s new mailbox?)  Sandra can wait for her reward money for Harbin’s body, and spend quality time with her girlfriend on Cape Cod.  And you didn’t think it would be that easy, did you?  Not after twenty-four novels.  Three chapters left.

McWhitney has the cash, and figuring to throw the hounds off the trail, says he’ll drive to his place the long way around from Connecticut, while Parker and Sandra take the ferry back to Long Island, and give Meany’s guy his Subaru with the bank money, completing the transaction.  Since the other guys are on the ferry, waiting their chance–oh damn–they got off.  They’re going after Nels.  And they still think he’s got millions.

McWhitney’s not answering his cell.  Sandra’s disgusted, ready to give up.  But there’s one possible way to track these guys–both the Chevy SUVs they used had dealer plates.  They’ve got an in with a dealership.  And Sandra always writes down the license number of any car that takes her interest.  Professional habit.  And she’s got contacts at the DMV.  DeRienzo Chevrolet, Long Island Avenue, Deer Park.

They’ll go over there, have some more diner food, maybe talk a bit more about frozen lakes, and wait for the Chevy to get dropped off.

Sandra frowned at the slow-moving traffic all around the.  They wouldn’t get clear of this herd from the ferry for another half hour or more, when they reached the beginning of the Expressway.  “You’re a strange guy to partner with,” she said.

“So are you.”

“Do me a favor.  Don’t kill anybody.”

“We’ll see.”

This dialogue’s a little too playful, too odd couple buddy action movie for me–Parker as played by Bruce Willis or George Clooney, Sandra maybe Michelle Pfeiffer or Kim Basinger–but hey, that could be fun.  Two chapters left.

When they go into the dealership, they pose as a married couple, looking for a family car, and you know Sandra’s the one selling it.  But seriously, how is this a place some two-bit wiseguys would be able to just show up and and borrow brand new rides with dealer plates to commit crimes with?  Let me just Google ‘organized crime, car dealerships, Long Is–man, that wasn’t hard at all.

Half a dozen car dealers were clustered along both sides of the wide road in this neighborhood, all of them proclaiming, either by banner or by neon sign, OPEN TIL 9!  All the dealerships were lit up like football stadiums, and in that glare the sheets of glass and chrome they featured all sparkled like treasure chests.  This was the heart of car country, servicing the afterwork automotive needs of the bedroom communities.

(And certain other communities, but they don’t put that in the TV ads.)

They wait around almost an hour before the Chevy Suburban shows, and much to their surprise, Nelson’s in the car, still alive.  Parker, the great detective, making his last bow, figures it out.  Sidd told them it was two million bucks.  Nels only had 200k.  They want him to tell them where the rest is.

Here’s the one problem with Sandra.  For all her talk before about how there’s no street, no line for her to cross, she still got raised respectably enough to go to college, she’s at least as much cop as crook, and she doesn’t want to cross the line between crook and killer, if she can help it.  She’d rather just watch the rough stuff, like she did the night of the armored car heist, then pitch in, and lose her cherry.  At some point, she’s going to have to choose, but for the present, Parker tells her to get the car.

McWhitney, no maiden he, makes his move before he sees Parker and Sandra, hitting two of the three guys, and going for the second one’s pistol (this is the same portly guy from the other night, who Parker humiliated–same gun too). The driver fires his gun in the air.  The salesman starts yelling “Not the model!”

Parker grazes the ear of the bulky guy with the Bobcat, McWhitney shoots one of his captors with the captured Glock, gets in the Suburban and drives.  Sandra picks up Parker in her Honda, and they leave, with the salesman still screaming about the damn model.  McWhitney’s headed back to his bar, probably still having no idea who just saved his ass.

They follow, but they don’t know Long Island that well, and may be the last to arrive on the scene.  If you’ve ever been to Long Island, this is totally believable.

Final chapter.  Up ahead of them, Nelson gets out of sight in the traffic.  Behind them, Parker spots the two remaining hoods in their own car (their deal with the dealership is presumably shot to hell, much like the dealership itself).  They seem to be taking a shortcut, and now all Parker and Sandra can do, without the aid of GPS, is get to the bar soon as they can, hope it’s not too late.

It’s all dark on the block when they get there.  The Suburban is parked outside.   The place is locked up, but Sandra’s got a set of lockpicks.  She took a class. Bit out of practice, but she gets them in.  They creep through cautiously, and they can hear Nels being interrogated.  If that’s the word.  Their idea seems to be ‘make him tell us where the  rest of the money is, tell him we’ll give him a share, then his share is a bullet.’  Nels isn’t that dumb.  He passes out.

One of them goes out to get water to revive him, Parker clubs him with the Bobcat, which for all its virtues, isn’t the right tool for that task.  Violence follows.  You’ve seen it before. Sandra tells Parker not to kill anyone if he doesn’t have to.  He already knows that, but guess what?

The bulky guy’s name is apparently Mike.  You know, the one Parker told at the bar that a fat body makes a good silencer if you press the gun right up against it. Right again. Good to know. The other one’s tied up.  Less than two pages left.  One last quote.

“Let’s see what Nels looks like.”

He didn’t look good, but he looked alive, and even groggily awake.  The two guys working him over had been eager but not professional, which meant they could bruise him and make him hurt, but couldn’t do more permanent damage unless they accidentally killed him.  For instance, he still had all his fingernails.

Parker lifted him to his feet, saying “Can you walk?”

“Uuhh.  Where…”

With Parker’s help, McWhitney walked slowly toward the bedroom, as Parker told him, “One of them’s dead in the bar, the other one’s alive right there.  Tomorrow, you can deal with them both.  Right now, you lie down.  Sandra and me’ll split the money and get out of here.”

He helped McWhitney to lie back on the bed, then said to Sandra, “If we do this right, you can get me to Claire’s place by two in the morning.”

“What a good person I am.”

“If you leave me here,” the guy on the floor said, “he’ll kill me tomorrow morning.”

Parker looked at him. “So you’ve still got tonight,” he said.

That’s right.  And that’s all.

So many more questions than answers here.

Greg and I were sort of going round and round in the comments section about this one.  It doesn’t feel like a finale.  So many balls still in the air, many of which only got up there in the very last part of the book.  So yes, it does feel like there’s much more coming.  This dance is not done.

But that final line.  That feels like somebody who knows he’s writing on borrowed time.  And the loan’s about to come due.  And the repo man is parked outside.  That’s how it feels.  That’s how it’s supposed to feel.

Butcher’s Moon was one of the greatest finishes any series ever had, and I don’t just mean crime novels, and I don’t just mean print fiction, and I’m not sure I even need the qualifier.  (And yet, decades later, came eight more novels, and I wouldn’t have wanted to miss out on one of them, even Flashfire.)  And Westlake always said he never meant Butcher’s Moon to be the last one.  It was the last one until the next one, is all.

This finish, by contrast, is quite tame and uncertain by comparison.  And yet it feels more final, if only because we know–it’s the last one.  And we can only decide for ourselves how the story ends, or if.  Abrupt inconclusive conclusions were a Westlake trademark, that Stark shared with him, and this is no exception.

I see Sandra driving Parker back to Colliver Pond.  They head down the LIE (I didn’t pick that acronym), threading the needle through the heart of the city Donald Westlake first saw light in, until they pass the sign saying “Last Exit in New York.”  You miss that turn-off, and guess what?  You’re on the George Washington Bridge.  Next stop New Jersey.

Parker’s eyes are dark, unreadable.  What is he thinking about?  Is he remembering a different trip across that bridge?   Back when he couldn’t afford a car?  But you know, probably not.  You or I would be remembering, so we project that on him.  We think we’re identifying with him.  We think it’s the same thing.

The lights of the city recede behind them, as they head into the northwestern corner of that very misunderstood state.  The sign says “Welcome To Sussex County” and before long they’re at the house.  Claire’s outlined in the doorway as they pull up.  Sandra called her cell.

A brief friendly chat, an offer of sustenance passed up, and Sandra’s headed back to her own Claire, on Cape Cod, with her share.  Her cherry still intact, but for how much longer?  Domesticated on the outside, wild on the inside.  How you gonna keep her down on the farm, now that she’s seen Paree?

Claire and Parker talk softly, and she goes inside.  He puts his split in the garage–Robbins will be getting most of it soon. He’ll need that new identity. He’ll need to work again before long. If he had a billion dollars, he’d still need to work. It’s who he is. It’s what he is. It’s all he is.

He goes out back, to look out on the lake.  It’s the middle of the night, dead quiet, no birds or crickets chirping in the cold.  He hears a rustle by the lakeshore, his eyes, quickly adjusted to the darkness, pick up a shape moving towards him.

Four legs. Bushy tail. Long pointed snout. Two sharp-pointed ears. Two yellow eyes, picking up the ambient light, shining at him. Sharp teeth. Grinning at him. He grins back.  They converse. Without words. Only humans need words.

 

How’s the hunting been on your side?

Not bad.  Just ate a cat.  Easy kill.  House pet.  I think maybe they turned it loose before they left. Where do they go in the winter, anyway?

Oh, other places.  Cities.  Full of light and noise.  Some of your folk are there too.  You’re better off here, I think.  

No doubt.  But you have to make a living, wherever you are.   You back from a hunt?

Yeah.  A hard one.  Complicated.  It’s always complicated with them.  They don’t know anything about themselves.  But they think they know everything.

Tell me about it.  You think they’ll last much longer? 

Maybe not.  

I, for one, would not miss them.  But I’d miss their cats. And the little dogs. Tasty.

Saw one just the other day you’d have enjoyed.  The big ones can be dangerous, though.

Yeah, I avoid them. Best be on my way. My mate’s waiting.

Mine too.  Good hunting.

Any hunt you survive is good.

That’s right.

 

They grin again, and the shape fades into the trees.  Parker walks to the back porch door, opens it, is about to go inside.

Then he turns.  He looks around.  Looks right in our direction.  Oh God. He can see us.

He studies us a moment.  He’s thinking to himself. Deciding whether we need to die or not.  Are we a threat?  Nah.  Harmless.  We just like to watch.

There’s amusement in his gaze. Maybe more like contempt.

I hope you people had fun with your words.  No more words now.  Good Night.

And for the very last time, he shuts the door in our faces.

Postscript: That cover image up top, below the two German editions for this book, is the first German edition of The Hunter.  Title translates to Now We’re Even.  Sehr gut! Though personally, I never saw Parker as Cary Grant.  Which begs a question, I suppose.  How do we see him?  Who do we cast in the movie playing in our heads?

Before I get to the next book in our queue–the last book in our queue–why don’t we talk about that a bit.  After all, we still have tonight.

 

(Part of Friday’s Forgotten Books)

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Filed under Donald Westlake novels, Parker Novels, Richard Stark

Review: Dirty Money, Part 2

A bum?  Nick edged closer, and was astonished to see it was Parker.

What was Parker doing there?  He had come for the money, no other reason.

So where was his car?  Nick had been on both sides of the road and he hadn’t see any car.  Was it hidden somewhere?  Where?

He hunkered against the wall, across the room from Parker, trying to decide what to do, whether he should go look for the car, or wake Parker up to ask him where it was, or just kill him and keep moving, when Parker came awake.  Nick saw that Parker from the first instant was not surprised, not worried, not even to wake up and find somebody in the room with a gun in his hand.

The covers for the various editions of the final Parker novel are all quite decent, including the first edition from Grand Central.  Rivages turned up a fitting bit of criminal Trompe L’oeil, and we’ll see the usual two alternate takes from Germany next time.

But of the covers I was able to find, I must award top marks to Italy.  Maybe that abandoned chapel is too Gothic-looking for the white clapboard structure in the book (though it is named after a saint), but that somber tableau perfectly captures the underlying mood, even if we can’t be sure the figure standing there in the dark is Parker or Dalesia.  I’m going with Nick.  Guy deserves that much.

Like all Parker novels save one, Dirty Money is divided into four parts, one of which changes POV at least once every chapter, showing us the perspectives of people other than Parker who are in some way relevant to the plot.  Usually, this was Part Three, but in a few instances, it was Part Two, and this is one of those.

Because this book is taking place immediately after the events of the previous two books, there’s a lot of carry-over.  Four of the ten chapters are from the vantage point of a character introduced in Nobody Runs Forever, one from Ask The Parrot.  Only two new POV characters are introduced in Part Two, one cop and one crook, and neither amounts to much in the grand scheme of things.  In Parts Three and Four, a whole new group of players come in, as the story shifts from getting at the stashed loot to unloading and defending it.

I find all this less than satisfyingly organic and well-balanced, compared to most past novels in this series.  More than diverting, all the same.

And I’ve long found it remarkable that Westlake spent the last four or five years of his life working on what turned into three inter-connected books, the collective timeline of which probably runs no more than two or three weeks–not unlike the first four novels in the series, but even more chronologically compressed (and remember, he published the first eight Parker novels in about the same time it took him to come out with the last three.)

If Westlake had lived long enough for a 25th entry, would it have picked up where this left off, turning the Triptych into a Quadriptych?  (Which is what Stark turned the original Triptych into when he wrote The Mourner.)  Don’t you love rhetorical questions?  Almost as much as rambling drawn-out plot synopses, or you wouldn’t be here.  Not wanting to disappoint….

Remember Dr. Myron Madchen?  Who was going to provide Jake Beckham with an alibi for the armored car job?  He needed a share of the loot in order to leave his wife.  When that didn’t work out, he killed his wife, made it look like natural causes, and everybody was so intent on the robbery that he ended up having nothing to do with (because Jake was such a screw-up), a quiet little murder didn’t get much attention.  At no point, mind you, does he ever admit this to anyone, even himself.  But that’s what happened.

He’s preparing to start his new life, with his pretty young girlfriend, who will be leaving her abusive husband for him.  He doesn’t have to leave town now.  He can keep his old practice, his wife’s money, and the big comfortable house her money paid for.  Who says crime doesn’t pay?   He’s made out better from the heist than anybody.  Just one little catch.  His name’s Dalesia.

Nick’s sitting there in his home office, when Madchen turns the light on.  Nick tells him to turn it off.  They have some things to discuss.  Nick needs a place to hide out.  He figures this house will do just fine.  Conveniently, Madchen just gave his maid the week off.  That should be long enough.

If the good doctor won’t play ball with him, and Nick gets grabbed by the law, he’s going to play ball with them–which is going to include letting them know about how Madchen conspired to aid and abet armed robbery.  And maybe they should run an autopsy on the wife, just to be thorough.  But that won’t be necessary, will it?

Nick’s too nice for this gig, you know.  He belongs in a safe cozy Dortmunder novel.  He won’t threaten the doctor’s life in any convincing way (though the doctor thinks for a moment about giving Nick the same injection he gave the wife).  He even agrees not to steal Madchen’s car.  He stays in the room the doctor gives him, makes no trouble, leaves before Estrella the maid comes back–at which point all he asks for is a ride to the church the money is stowed at.  You think Parker would be that cooperative?

Circumstances are less cooperative.  A week wasn’t long enough.  The heat is still on.  Because Nick killed a Federal Marshal.  So now he doesn’t belong in a Dortmunder novel either.   Nowhere left to go.

(When Dr. Madchen drops Nick off, a few chapters further on, we never hear from him again.  There’s no reason to think he won’t live happily ever after with his lovely Isabelle, who is so grateful to him for giving her an escape hatch from her own miserable marriage, she won’t ask any inconvenient questions. Maybe her hurtful hubby will have a few, but we never meet him.

And I don’t think Stark gives a damn about who killed whom, but this doesn’t quite seem like Starkian morality to me.  The doctor got in way over his head, he put up a moral front while dealing with crooks, and he murdered his wife.  He’s not owning any of this. He’s the same weak-willed wuss he always was.  And he’s just going to slide home safe? Was this really the end of his arc?  Or was he going to show up again later, for some form of comeuppance?  In a book that never got written.)

Chapter 2, we meet up once more with Captain Robert Modale, of the New York State Police, the ranking trooper responsible for (among other things) the tiny town of Pooley, where Parker recently had a short profitable stay.  He’s been asked to come down and compare notes, and he thinks it’s a huge waste of time.  He’s staying at Bosky Rounds, where a room has suddenly opened up (safe trip home, Claire).  He sees Sandra, thinks maybe he recognizes her.  Sandra wasn’t in Ask The Parrot, so not sure what that’s about.

He and Reversa hit it off right away.  Both professionals, both observant, both quietly exasperated with the general run of human stupidity.  And best of all, when she first came into the room, looking much too young and pretty to be a detective, somebody introduced her by title, so he didn’t embarrass himself in front of her.

They agree the existing police sketch being used is inadequate.  Modale never questioned Parker as Reversa did, but he saw him in the course of the manhunt for the bank robber, that the bank robber ended up joining.  They join forces to come up with a more lifelike portrait.

The artist was a small irritable woman who worked in charcoal, smearing much of it on herself.  “I think,” Gwen Reversa told her, “the main thing wrong with the picture now is that it makes him look threatening.”

“That’s right,” Captain Modale said.

The artist, who wasn’t the one who’d done the original drawing, frowned at it.  “Yes, it is threatening,” she agreed.  “What should it be instead?”

“Watchful,” Gwen Reversa said.

“This man,” the captain said, gesturing at the picture, “is aggressive, he’s about to make some sort of move.  The real man doesn’t move first.  He watches you, he waits to see what you’re going to do.”

“But then,” Gwen Reversa said, “I suspect he’s very fast.”

“Absolutely.”

The artist pursed her lips.  “I’m not going to get all that into the picture.  Even a photograph wouldn’t get all that in.  Are the eyes all right?”

“Maybe,” Gwen Reversa said, “not so defined.”

“He’s not staring,” the captain said.  “He’s just looking.”

The artist signed.  “Very well,” she said, and opened her large sketch pad on the bank officer’s desk in this small side office next to the main HQ room.  “Let’s begin.”

Terry Mulcany shows up, talks about how he saw this man with this very good-looking woman, and the man kind of resembled the face on the wanted posters.  He can’t remember the name of the place he saw them at.  They show him the new sketch.  Bingo.

Time to check on Nelson McWhitney, still back on Long Island, who has obtained and customized a small truck, as Sandra suggested in Part One.  Soon he’ll be heading over to New England, but having a bit of time to kill, decides to set up a failsafe–in case he’s the only one who comes back from this trip, with all the cash.  He talks to a guy he knows, connected, named Oscar Sidd.  Tells him about the money.  Suggests that Oscar’s connections could arrange for the cash to be laundered.

This is dumb, of course.  Nels is not one of Life’s Deep Thinkers.  Naturally suspicious of everyone, which would be fine, but then why is he confiding in Oscar Sidd?  He insists he’s not planning a cross–but he’s talking as if somehow the whole pile might fall into his hands.  Maybe Parker and Sandra will try to cross him, and  he’ll be forced to kill them.  Yeah, and then he’ll turn out to be heir to the throne of Narnia.  C’mon.

Next chapter is from Terry Mulcany’s POV, and he’s so excited.  He’s going to have a really fantastic book to write about this true crime he helped solve.  (Working title: The Land Pirates.)  This chapter is only of interest because we learn the fate of Tom Lindahl, or rather, what fate he didn’t have.  Parker wondered, at the end of the last book, how far Tom would get.  Pretty far, as it turned out.

Detective Reversa asked “Tom Lindahl?  Who’s he?”

“A loner,” Modale said, “just about a hermit, living by himself in a little town over there.  For years he was a manager in charge of upkeep, buildings, all that, at a racetrack near there.  He got fired for some reason, had some kind of grudge.  When this fellow Ed Smith came long, I guess it was Tom’s opportunity at last to get revenge.  They robbed the track together.”

Detective Reversa said, “But they’re not still together.  You don’t think Lindahl came over here.”

“To tell you the truth,” Modale said, “I thought we’d pick up Lindahl within just two or three days.  He has no criminal record, no history of this sort of thing, you’d expect him to make nothing but mistakes.”

“Maybe,” Detective Reversa said, “our robber gave him a few good tips for hiding out. Unless, of course, he killed Lindahl once the robbery was done.”

“It doesn’t look that way,” Modale said. “They went in late last Sunday night, overpowered the guards, and made off with nearly two hundred thousand dollars in cash.  None of it traceable, I’m sorry to say.”

He ditched his car in Lexington Kentucky, near the bus station there.  Modale says he could be anywhere in the country by now, working on a new identity for himself.  Not living in anything like luxury, of course.  ~100k is not retirement money, and would he be able to get Social Security checks under a false name?  (Joe Sheer did.)

Point is, he got free.  Stark wants us to know that.  It wasn’t about the money for Lindahl, or even revenge; it was about leaving a failed life behind, starting fresh.  100k’s enough for that.  Well-earned, after the system failed him so badly.  All Terry can see is the sheer romance of it–but not, to his disappointment, the ‘triumph of the law at the end of the day’, so essential to any True Crime story.  Well no, and that didn’t happen with the corrupt track owners who screwed Tom and the entire legal system over, either.  But that’s a bit out of his journalistic niche, isn’t it.

Chapter 5 tells us Oscar Sidd is tailing McWhitney in his nondescript little sedan.  Nels may not be planning a cross, but he is.

Nothing much happens in Chapter 6, except Modale and Reversa part on terms of mutual respect and a shared desire that this Allen/Smith/Whoever gets locked up soon.  Terry tells Gwen he remembered the place he saw the guy had something to do with pears.  It’s on a date with her lawyer friend that she figures that out.  Bartlett.  Bosky Rounds.  (For all we know, Terry was thinking of Bosc pears, but never mind.)

Chapter 7 introduces us to Trooper Louise Rawburton, and her partner, Danny Oleski.  They’re being told by a superior that the roadblocks aren’t enough, and now they’re going to actively search for both the robbers and the presumably stashed loot from the robbery.  Louise and Danny have been assigned, among other things, to check out St. Dympna.  Sounds a bit sacrilegious, but I’ll bite–who her?

“She was supposed to be Irish.  Most churches with saints’ names are Roman Catholic, but we weren’t.  We were United Reformed.  Louise laughed and said, “The funny thing is, when they founded the church, they just wanted some unusual name to attract attention, so they picked St. Dympna, and then, too late, they found out she’s actually the patron saint of insanity.”

Danny looked at her.  “You’re putting me on.”

“I am not.  Turned out, there’s a mental hospital named for her in Belgium.  When I was a kid, that was the coolest thing, our church was named for the patron saint of crazy people.”

(There’s supposed to be an ‘h’ in her name somewhere, but you know Protestants–always editing things out.)

Chapter 8, Reversa shows up at Bosky Rounds, with the new improved wanted posters, and after she’s left, Mrs. Bartlett is forced to acknowledge that one of the robbers was a guest of hers in the near past.  Henry Willis.  And that lovely Claire Willis.  Mrs. Bartlett thought Henry was a sourpuss, but she adored Claire.

She wrestles with her conscience a while, and decides not to drop a dime on them.  It would be embarrassing to admit a bank robber was under her roof, for one thing.  But for another, she just can’t bring herself to get that sweet girl in trouble.  And this is why you should always be extra nice to people who work in the hospitality trade, folks.  Parker used to know that.  I guess having Claire means he doesn’t have to put up a pleasant affable front in hotels and such anymore.  That must be excruciating for him.

Chapter 9 is all Loscalzo/McWhitney, and I must say, it’s a delight.  They rub each other in just the right wrong way (she’s so simpatico with Parker, there’s no friction there at all).  She knows he got an Econoline van, dark green, good enough, and had the name of the ersatz church choir painted on it.  He does not know she’s decided to tail him all the way there in her car.

Good thing she did.  She spots the other tail–Oscar Sidd.  She knows all about nondescript vehicles as camouflage, and she knows a tail when she sees it.   She and Nels, being more techno-friendly than Parker, both have cellphones.  They exchanged numbers, and man this is getting modern!  Next thing you know they’ll be texting each other.  Not sure about FaceTime.

We get a little background on her as they drive–she did go to college, got her P.I. license shortly after she left (doesn’t say graduated–Westlake didn’t get the sheepskin either).  She worked the respectable side of her business a while, and found it deadly dull.  Roy Keenan was happy to show her the ropes of bounty hunting, then take credit for her brains.  She thought it was a good partnership, and she’s not the least bit sad that it’s over, because what would be the point?  Parker with a bit of polish (and not just on her nails).

Anyway, she’s got to deal with this shoofly. Better call Nels.

“You’ve got a tin can on your tail, you know about that?

“What?  Where are you?”

“Listen to me,  Nelson.  He’s in a nothing little car, two behind you.”

“Jesus Christ!”

“Tall bony guy in black, looks like he’s never had a good meal in his life.”

“That son of a bitch.”

“You know him, I take it.  Pal of yours?”

“Not any more.”

He offers to swat the fly, but she tells him keep the truck clean, she’ll handle the mess.  She gets out ahead of them both, and lies in wait, with her Taurus Tracker .17HMR–like Parker, she knows the value of the right tool for the job at hand.  A .45 for intimidation factor.  For a job like this, you want precision, which means a long barrel.  Might as well post an image.

hgtracker_1204a

Puts one right in Sidd’s tire as he goes by.  He loses control, knocks himself out on the windshield.  She and Nelson drive on to the church, and as they get there, they hear a shot.  This is where we came in.  Stark Rewind time.  With a twist.

Chapter 10 is from Dalesia’s perspective, and it’s not a happy one.  He’s on the run from the cops and  his former partners.  He’s looking into Parker’s eyes, there in the church, and all he can see is death.  Parker threw the water bottle, then he threw the mat he was using as a blanket, then he threw himself.  The bullet misses.

Parker knocks the gun out of Dalesia’s hand, and now his hands are reaching for Nick’s throat. Those huge veiny hands. Every guy who works with Parker has probably thought about what those hands would feel like, wrapped around his throat.  Nick would rather not find out.  He jumps through a closed window to the ground below.  And that’s Part Two.

McWhitney and Loscalzo come up, one after the other, to hear the sad story.  Parker had Nick, but he was too stiff after sleeping on that floor, let him go.  He’s cut from the glass, no gun, no car, no money, cops everywhere.  If they don’t find him, the law will, and any faint hope he wouldn’t spill his guts about McWhitney and Parker is gone now.  So they have to spill his guts for him, or start prepping for some serious lifestyle changes.

While Sandra gets the van ready to receive its cargo, Parker and Nels do a quick search, come up empty.  No more time, have to get the money out.  Boxes of bills, covered with a layer of hymnals.  Also a few boxes that are just hymnals, in case they get stopped.  Have to leave some cash behind.  C’est la guerre.

Parker says he needs to go back into the church.  He doesn’t say why.  He saw mud on the floor that wasn’t there before.  Dalesia’s hiding in the basement.  Parker has the gun now, but Nick has one last card to play–the cops are outside.  No silencer on that gun.  Stalemate, right?

Wrong.  He forgot about the hands.  This time they find the neck.  Bye, Nick.

This is a significant moment in the series, that isn’t treated as such.  Parker has killed a lot of his colleagues in the past twenty-three books.  He’s never been forced to kill one who didn’t cross him on a job, cheat him of his share, or try to kill him.  Nick did just shoot at him, but that’s as clear-cut a case of self-defense as ever there was.  And, you know, he could have said they’d smuggle him out in the van–but the cops have his photograph.  He’s got a target on his chest the rest of his life.  Which isn’t saying much anymore.

Nick Dalesia was a solid pro, a likable guy.  Not a nice guy.  Not in that profession.  But is he–pardon, was he–any worse than Handy McKay, Alan Grofield, Dan Wycza, Salsa, Mike Carlow, Stan Devers, or Ed Mackey?  Nope.  A bit more mellow, I’d say.  And would Parker have hesitated to kill any of those old amigos, if they were standing where Nick was just now?  Nope.  Is Parker getting soft in this final books?  Hell nope.  He is maybe crossing a line here.  Nick crossed it first, when he killed that marshal.  Romanticism only gets you so far in the 21st century.  Sorry, Nick.

Parker hides the body, goes back outside.  Sandra is playing the friendly choir director (there are going to be some things she does better than Parker, having lived in the straight world so long, and this is one of them). Parker’s name is now Desmond.  “I’m in recovery,” he lies.  For a guy who has never lived in the straight world, he’s not bad, you know?

The cops are, of course, Louise and Danny, and Louise is so happy and nostalgic about the place.  She totally believes Sandra belongs to some church choir that rehabilitates people who had a tough break. She’s so pleased when Sandra gives her a hymn book as a keepsake.  And Parker is so pleased to learn the roadblocks have been lifted.

The ride back to Long Island is not as uneventful as hoped.  McWhitney gets stopped once along the way, so good thing they didn’t do what he wanted, and dump the hymnals to make room for the last few boxes of cash.  Parker learns what happened with Oscar Sidd from Sandra, and he knows Nelson was at least half-thinking about a cross.  Not enough to push that button in Parker’s head, but the button is still there, waiting.

Sandra drops him at a motel, where he and McWhitney will watch the cash, before getting the rest of the way back.  Parker tells her it’s safe for her girlfriend to come home.  They’re getting pretty cozy, those two.  For wolves who just met on a frozen lake.

Parker and Nels have a drink at the motel bar, and talk strategy.  They’ve got the money, and don’t feel like waiting a decade or so to spend it, so they need somebody with overseas connections, who can make it disappear, and give them a decent percentage.  Oscar Sidd has proven  himself less than trustworthy.  Parker knows somebody else–not trustworthy.  More solid, better connected.  And there’s a relationship there.  Not what you’d call a friendly one, but as Parker told Sandra in the car, he doesn’t have friends.

Let’s skip over the preliminaries in Chapter 7 (okay, just this much–“Who shall I say is calling?”  “Parker.” “Is that all?”  “He’ll know.”), and cut ahead to the meet.  Northern NJ, state park, picnic area, right in front of a park police headquarters.  Neutral turf.  Frank Meany.  Cosmopolitan Beverages. You know, the people who sent their Russian hitman to kill Parker, at Paul Brock’s behest, only things did not work out as planned.   At one point Parker had a gun to Meany’s head, and that definitely wasn’t part of Meany’s plan.  Now Meany’s wondering what plans this guy has.  He’s wondering even more at the size of the balls on this guy.  But he’s no slouch himself.

Meany said a word to the driver, then came on, as the driver got back behind the wheel and put the Daimler just beyond the red pickup.  A tall and bulky man with a round head of close-cropped hair, Meany was a thug with a good tailor, dressed today in pearl-gray topcoat over charcoal-gray slacks, dark blue jacket, pale blue shirt and pale blue tie.  Still, the real man shone through the wardrobe, with his thick-jawed small-eyed face, and the two heavy rings on each hand, meant not for show for for attack.

Meany approached Parker with a steady heavy treat, stopped on the other side of the picnic table, but did not sit down.  “So here we are,” he said.

“Sit,” Parker suggested.

Meany did so, saying, “You’re not gonna object to the driver?”

“He gets out of the car,” Parker said, “I’ll do something.”

“Deal.  Same thing for your friend in the pickup.”

“Same thing.  You didn’t bring a sandwich.”

“I ate lunch.”

Parker shook his head, irritated.  As he took his sandwich out of the bag and ripped the bag in half to make two paper plates, he said, “People who ride around in cars like that one there forget how to take care of themselves.  If I’m looking at you out of one of those windows over there, and you’re not here for lunch, what are you here for?”

“An innocent conversation,” Meany said, and shrugged.

“In New Jersey?”  Parker pushed a half sandwich on a half bag to Meany, then took a bite of the remaining half.

(It’s official.  Everybody makes jokes about Jersey.)

So while they each chew on half a Reuben, Parker lays out his business proposition.  He’s not saying he did that armored car robbery, but if he was, he’d want ten cents on the dollar. 200k.  Meaning they’ve got two million.  (I’m not sure that matches up with what we were told in Nobody Runs Forever, or with the fact that they had to leave some cash behind at the church, and there’s some more dubious accounting ahead, but it’s the last book, the author’s dead, what are you gonna do, demand an audit?)

They reach a tentative agreement (you might go so far as to call it tenuous, tense, tendentious, or even tenebrous.)  Meany will go talk to his boss.  Parker has no boss, and he doesn’t talk to himself.

Meanwhile, back in Massachusetts, which is the name of the last chapter in Part Three, Louise and Danny are passing St. Dympna’s again, and she just has to go in and check it out this time.  Oh no, the church group left some of the hymnals behind! Maybe they can give them to charity.  That would be some lucky charity. They’re still absorbing the full terrifying implications of their fuck-up, when Danny smells something funny.  Or someone.

Reversa has been working on a different case, relating to a wealthy Chinese couple keeping undocumented Chinese immigrants as defacto slaves.  They bring her in to hear the sad news.  All that good professional work she put in.  Undone by some unprofessional work done further down the chain of command.  The troopers never even took down the name of that guy who showed them his license–Mac-something?

She sighs to herself.  She really thought they’d get him, and now she’s got to tell Modale that their quarry has slipped through the net yet again.  It’s been nine days.  John B. Allen?  Might as well call him Long John.  Because he’s long gone.

She’s a good hunter, but she didn’t quite understand what she was chasing.  She refers to him as a cat at one point.  Right track.  Wrong family.

That’s all we see of Gwen Reversa, or Massachusetts.  The loose ends from Nobody Runs Forever have all been tied up neatly.  Parker has come to an arrangement that should deal with the one remaining loose end, that of the serial numbers on the stolen bills.  The book could end right here, at page 192.  But the thing about loose ends is, they proliferate.  In literature, and life.

Not at 5,000 words yet.  I could wrap things up now, without going on longer than I have in past.  But what follows, in Part Four, is a story all to itself, and merits special treatment.  With regard to what’s come before, it’s more of a coda than a conclusion–long enough for a novella, which I’m half-inclined to refer to it as.  And it seems to me that Stark was laying the groundwork for more Parker stories.  That we’ll never read.

Because he’s long gone.

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Filed under Donald Westlake novels, Parker Novels, Richard Stark

Review: Nobody Runs Forever, Part 3

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“You said it was Jersey plates,” Barry pointed out, and poured them both some more chardonnay.  “Maybe he went home.”

“Or maybe he’s lying low,” she said.  “If he isn’t a landscape designer, and I know damn well he isn’t, then what’s he doing here, what’s he doing with Elaine Langen, and why are they both lying about it?”

“Hanky-panky?”

“No,” she said, sure of that.  “She would, with anything in pants, but not him.  He’s a cold guy.  With me, when I stopped him, he wore this affability like a coat, it wasn’t him.”

“The cloak of invisibility,” Barry suggested.

“Exactly. Who knows who he is, down in there?”

It starts with technology, but it still ends with tracker dogs.

One more cover gallery, and a bit repetitive, I know, but how fortunate that University of Chicago Press finally published The Triptych.  Meaning that from now on, all twenty-eight of the books Westlake published as Stark are evailable, which means they’ll stay in ‘print’ no matter what.  Well, for the foreseeable future, which Parker wouldn’t think was saying anything much.

Not much to say about the cover itself, either–not sure what Parker is leaning against there.  Bank vault door?  Safe tumbler?  I’ve no idea.  The one next to it is tiresomely over-literal, and I’m not even sure who put out that edition.

Rivages, in its Thriller and Noir imprints both, chose to focus on Parker’s target–an armored car.  And was perhaps alone in choosing not to use the original title. Google tells me that it would translate to Personne Ne Court Toujours, though presumably other phrasings would be possible.  Perhaps none had the right ring, so they went with the above, which means ‘running on empty.’  Sound familiar?

C’est vrai. (And Parker has seen his share of both fire and rain.)

Marilyn Stasio, in her NY Times review column devoted to crime fiction (descended from the Criminals At Large column once written by Anthony Boucher, that originally championed these books), doesn’t so much review as describe.  Never having been taken seriously in the past, but now possessing the authority of longevity, Stark and his chief protagonist are treated as found art, changeless relics of another time, which isn’t altogether wrong, but you miss a lot that way–it’s all been changing over time, we’ve seen that in some detail here. (And if Parker doesn’t have a sense of humor, please explain the ending of The Seventh to me, Ms. Stasio. )

The world around Parker is shifting, and he has no choice but to shift with it.  The question is, how far can he adapt to the encroaching exigencies of this digital age and still remain himself?  If he can’t go far enough, how much longer can he last?  Is he running on empty?   He wouldn’t be alone.

This book is hard to figure, and that’s because it’s not a book.  It’s one third of a book.  Three novels that form one trifurcated epic.   Not a trilogy, but a Triptych, as I said, as Westlake belatedly realized.

Like Butcher’s Moon, the blood-drenched epic that concluded the First Sixteen (which isn’t divided into sections at all, just fifty-five chapters of ever-switching perspectives), this longer, bleaker, more contemplative and far less sanguinary conclusion to the Final Eight just doesn’t fit the profile.  But unlike Butcher’s Moon, it pretends to.

We did the multi-POV round-robin thing in Part Two, each chapter from a different character’s perspective.  Part Three sticks with Parker and his colleagues.  But then there’s Part Four, which flouts the established protocol altogether.

In the fairly long first chapter of Part Four, where the heist finally goes down, Stark is just floating around in the ether, like a hovering hawk with x-ray vision, showing us everything happening at once, checking in on everybody who still matters in the story.  He can do what the frustrated heist planner in Westlake’s Castle In The Air can only fantasize about.

What Eustace wanted, what Eustace needed, was for the entire city of Paris to suddenly be reduced to the size and aspect of a model train layout, with himself on a high stool overlooking the whole thing.

Much easier to do for a lightly peopled corner of New England, late at night, but still a tricky balancing act for any writer.  Westlake had done something like it in a few chapters of Dancing Aztecs, though in a more lyrical form.  (If you want to see that form done to perfection in a recent novel, I shall again plug Sarah Perry’s The Essex Serpent).

This really should have been released as one volume, and I hope it will be someday–you can’t properly appreciate any one panel in The Triptych without the others to refer to.  To split them apart almost amounts to art crime.  That I hold these three final installments of the Parker Saga in  higher estimation than some probably stems from the fact that I read all three in quick succession.  As individual books, they must always be somewhat unsatisfying, for all their undoubted merits.  Their cumulative impact is exponentially greater.

As a unified whole, they are still far from perfect: the author was starting to falter, his race nearly run–but you understand them much better that way, how each complements the other.  I don’t know how close together Westlake wrote them, but he certainly came to understand along the way what he was doing here, quite different from anything he’d done before.

A pity that publishing schedules demanded they come out so far apart.  I broke my usual rule of reviewing books in order of publication for this very reason.  Let’s see how many more rules I can break before we’re done here.

Another way in which this book goes against the grain is that Parker is less involved in planning.  Dalesia seems to have a knack for that as well, so while he’s been out scouting for the spot where they hijack the armored car, and the hideout where they can chill with the cash afterwards, Parker has been rustling up some  ‘materiel,’ a phrase I don’t think has been used in a Stark novel before.

Remember Briggs?  He showed up briefly at the start of Butcher’s Moon, the jewelry store heist that went wrong–he was the guy Parker told to throw a bomb to cover their escape.  He had to throw it in the direction of Michaelson, their fallen comrade, who might still have been alive, but not after the bomb went off.  Ruined his nerve, and he retired.  Well.  As much as a Stark  heister ever can retire.  He and his wife have a nice little house on a lake, just like Parker and Claire.  But this one’s in Florida.

Watching the movement on the lake, Parker said, “You like things calm.  No commotion.”

“We get commotion sometimes, Briggs said.  He’d put on a few pounds but was still basically a thin unathletic man who looked as though he belonged behind a desk.  Nodding at the lake, he said, “A few years ago, a tornado came across from the Gulf, bounced down onto the lake, looked as though it was coming straight here, lifted up just before it hit the shore, we watched the tail twist as it went right over the house, watched it out that picture window there.  That was enough commotion for a while.”

Parker said, “You watched it out a picture window?”

Briggs either shrugged or shivered; it was hard to tell which.  “Afterwards, we said to each other, that was really stupid.”

Anyway, he’s still got connections, which is why Parker is here.  They need something along the lines of a bazooka, or an RPG–powerful enough to knock out a heavily armored vehicle–and they’ll need several of them, no time for reloading.  They also need assault rifles for the aftermath.  (No, I don’t know why they can’t just go to a gun show, or rob a Walmart, stupid modern reality screwing up my crime fiction.  The Second Amendment doesn’t apply to calm professional crooks, only psycho-zealots with death wishes, how’s about that?)

Briggs mentions something about how the Feds are paying a lot more attention to weapons dealers now, because terrorism.  Now that could have been true in the 90’s (the first World Trade Center job), and nobody mentions 9/11, but it’s pretty strongly implied that we’re living in a brave new world that includes a Department of Homeland Security.  Anyway, he knows some people with just the can opener Parker needs.  The Carl-Gustaf.  (The hyphen seems to be a mistake, and who cares?)

“Sounds like a king,” Parker says.  Because it’s named after one.   Just another Saab story.

(This is an old design, with many variations, no need for us to know which one Parker’s getting.  You can see Westlake trying to avoid too many specifics–still going to get irate letters from anal weaponry buffs, but keep it to a minimum. “No, it’s a grenade firing system!” Now they’ve got the internet to kvetch on.  I bet none of them have slept for a week.)

With an assurance from Briggs that he’ll get them the materiel in time, Parker heads back to Massachusetts, and hears about Dalesia recruiting McWhitney (and of the untimely demise of Mr. Keenan).  He’s fine with both developments, though he’s a little worried about McWhitney’s tendency to fly off the handle–the guy seems okay in a crisis, going by what happened at the card game, and they don’t have time to find anyone better.

Parker likes the spot Dalesia picked for the trap to be sprung, and he also likes the hideout–an abandoned church on a little-used two-lane road.  There’s a place they can hide the armored car, and it’ll be invisible from the air.

What follows is a lot of professional-grade threatening, because too many people know about this job–unavoidable, but no less annoying for that.  Parker has to threaten Elaine Langen, who is spooked by all the attention she’s getting from Detective Gwen Reversa, which she brought on herself by shooting Jake Beckham in the leg when nobody told her to do that.  She’s not sure she can hold up under questioning.  Parker reminds of how she accused him and Dalesia of playing good cop/bad cop with her.  She says so far Reversa is being the good cop, and there’s no bad cop.

“Yes, there is,” Parker said.  “Me.”

The look she gave him turned bleak.

Parker said, “Everything she says to you, every hour she spends on you, just keep reminding yourself.  This is the good cop.  The bad cop is out there, and he’s not very far away, and he doesn’t go for second chances.”

“I’m sure you don’t.” Her voice was now a whisper, as though all strength had been drained from her.

“The bad cop is nearby.”

She closed her eyes and nodded.

“Talk to the good cop all you want,” Parker said.  “But always think about the bad cop.”

“I will.”  “Whispered again, this time almost like a prayer.

Then  he refers to the make of her car.  Infiniti.  Means forever.  Worth going for, right?  And people say he has no sense of humor. Nobody puns forever.

Next he talks to Jake’s sister Wendy, asks her to give her brother a message for him.  She’s not happy about even peripheral involvement in some illegal act, straight as a die this gal, but her main concern is Jake, because like I said last time, she needs a project.  And while she’s no genius, she’s got good instincts for people–she’s noticed this Dr. Myron Madchen, hanging around her brother at the hospital all the time, when there’s no reason for it.  It’s making her nervous.  Parker thanks her–says that makes him nervous too.  Someone else to threaten.

As he drives away from the trailer park, he realizes there’s an old beat-up Plymouth Fury tailing him, and if you’ve read Dancing Aztecs, you know who is likely as not to be driving one of those.  State cops.  It’s Reversa.  He tries to shake her, but she’s too good.  Finally pulls him over.  She wants to talk.

He’s got good phony ID, identifying himself as Claire’s brother, John B. Allen (possibly a reference to a 19th century western politician who has a street named after him in Tombstone AZ, I wouldn’t know).

Says he borrowed the car because his was in the shop.  He’s a landscape architect.  Well, after a fashion, I suppose that’s true.  The car is clean, his ID doesn’t set off any alarms, she’s got nothing to hold him on, so she lets him go, and he resolves to ditch the Lexus, find something else to drive.  He knows she suspects him, and he can see this is a smart cop.  And here’s a little plot hole.

See, we’ve already been told that Keenan and his partner tracked Parker down by running the plates on the Lexus–using databases maintained by the law, which they can access as what you might call a professional courtesy.  So once it becomes obvious that ‘John B. Allen’ was involved in a bank robbery, how hard is it going to be for the law to zero in on the house in New Jersey?

Okay, maybe there’s a workaround (he’s going to tell Claire to report the car stolen), but seems like a bad idea for Parker to have gone there on a job, in a car registered to Claire, unless the registration was for a false address, which would be equally problematic.  Oh well, let’s see how that plays out further down the road.  It’s not going to matter for the immediate future.

Parker and Dalesia go to Madchen’s house, and terrify the hell out of him.  He’s going to stop hanging around Jake.  So he’s nervous, fine.  He needs his cut out of Jake’s share to get away from this life he hates, no problem.  But he’s only putting them in a situation where they’ll have to kill him just to neaten things up.   We learned in Part Two that he’s been on the verge of suicide for a while now–and wants to live, more than anything.  Parker is convinced he’s too scared to go to the cops, so they let him off with a warning.  This time.

Now it’s time for them to be threatened, by someone as professional as they are, albeit in a somewhat more legal profession.  Sandra Loscalzo, the late Mr. Keenan’s partner.  Not of the Hammett school, she doesn’t feel like when a woman’s partner is killed she should do something about it.  She just wants the same thing Keenan did–the reward money on Harbin.  She was always the brains of that outfit anyway.

She holds McWhitney at gunpoint, at the motel all three at staying at–has him call the other two in for a confab.  The other side of the coin from Gwen Reversa–also tall, slender, blonde, very attractive (this leads to some confusion, when McWhitney tells the others about this woman following him).  She’s right on the edge between legal and illegal.

Oh, and she’s gay.  She lets slip (for no reason I can see) that she lives in Cape Cod, has a mortgage on a house there, where she lives with a friend who has a little girl going to private school.  To which Parker says “To find a dyke on Cape Cod with a daughter in private school and a canary-yellow-haired roommate would not be impossible.”   It would if she shot them all dead with her .357, but it’s a small motel room.  She knows better.  So do they.  They work out a deal.

McWhitney will get her Harbin’s mortal remains (Keenan’s she could care less about).  She’ll get all the reward money herself, no partner to split it with.  She knows they’re planning a job, but she doesn’t care about that, none of her business, she’s just an implausibly hot skip tracer (heavy heisters don’t skip bail, because they don’t make bail). Seems like there’s really nothing she cares about but scoring big and heading back to the woman she’s shacked up with.  Hmmm.

Part Three ends with Parker seeing Wendy Beckham sitting in her little Honda, parked by the motel.  She knows about the bank job, and now that she knows they’re staying at the very same motel Jake works at, she figures there’s no way in hell her little brother isn’t going to jail again if they pull the job. (Of course, if he’d done what Parker told him to do in the first place, break parole and turn himself in, but Parker isn’t going to bring that up now.)

She’s got a point, but Parker’s got a better one.  He tells her that if she’d talked to this other guy in the string, who tends not to think things through (I’m going to assume this is McWhitney), he’d just shoot her right then and there.  But that’s not the threat.  He knows she’s brave enough, and devoted enough, and dumb enough to risk all that.

Here’s his final and most sophisticated threat.  Threats, you see, have to be tailored to the person being threatened.   What is this woman most afraid of?

Parker said, “The reason it’s better to tell me than this other guy is, I take a minute to think about it.  I take a minute and I think, “what is she gonna tell the cops?  Does she know when or where or how we’re gonna do it?  No.  Does she know who we are when we’re at home?  No.  The only thing she can do is blow the whistle on her brother, so instead of maybe he’s in trouble definitely he’s in trouble and you did it.”

He waited, watching her eyes, as she went from defiant to frightened to something like desperate.  Then he said, “You want to talk to the cops, go ahead.  Don’t worry about us.  I gotta pack now.  Goodbye.”

Part Four, Chapter One, is the most exciting part of the book, and the most free-ranging. Divided into thirty-seven segments, no more than two or three pages apiece, some no more than a  paragraph, each divided from the others by short horizontal bars centered on the page.  I guess I could follow suit, just to be different.

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The pack, on the hunt now, departs the fittingly named Trails End Motor Inne (sounds like someplace Burke Devore might have stayed on one of his hunts, in The Ax), while Jake and Wendy contemplate a dwindling set of options at the hospital.  Jake says he’s sorry he told her about it.  So is she.

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Parker meets Dalesia and McWhitney at their staging area, an old abandoned mill.  They’re waiting for Briggs and the materiel.  If Briggs doesn’t show, it’s all off.

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As they wait, four International Navistar Armored Cars, model 2700, are getting started for Deer Hill Bank, coming from Chelsea, just outside Boston.  Four big boxy vehicles like this one.

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Dalesia heads off to meet Briggs at the motel, and lead him to the staging area.

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The armored cars, on their way upstate, head onto the Mystic-Tobin Bridge. (Why am I hearing Van Morrison in my head?) Most people just call it the Tobin Bridge. It’s not just a metatextual reference to Mitch Tobin, though of course it is that as well. It exists in physical reality. Here, I’ll prove it.

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Dalesia comes back to the mill with Briggs, who arrived on time, with the goods. McWhitney’s the only one who doesn’t know him from past jobs. They shake hands, neither convinced the other is okay. Both were generally dissatisfied people, in different ways, and couldn’t be expected to take to each other right away.  Awkward, introducing people you know from different places in your life. We can all relate.

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Elaine Langen heads for the banquet that celebrates the destruction of her father’s legacy.  She hopes to be celebrating something else soon.  But she’s nervous.  Holding herself together with Valium and liquor.

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Briggs introduces the team (and us) to the ordinance he’s acquired, sounding like a sales rep, which is what he is.  The three Carl-Gustafs (geez, they could knock over a small country) have three methods of sighting; the useful one here will be infrared. He was going to get them Valmets (remember them from Good Behavior?), but he could only find the ones without trigger guards (for Finnish soldiers wearing mittens), and he figured that would not be a good idea.  So the assault rifles are Colt Commandos–basically short-barreled M-16s.  I don’t feel like posting an image.  Too soon, you know?  Or do I mean too late?

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Elaine stands there while her shit of a husband openly gloats about what he’s done to daddy’s bank.  She needs another drink.  Open bar.  Uh-oh.

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At the Green Man Motel, Dr. Myron Madchen and his girlfriend Isabelle Moran, make love to celebrate their impending delivery from unsuitable spouses.  They have to make love carefully because of the broken rib her shit of a husband recently gave her.  Westlake recycling the love scene from that novel he recycled from a rejected Bond script; a book he figures nobody will ever read.  Fooled you, didn’t we, Mr. Westlake?

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Briggs heads back to the motel, where he’s supposed to rest up in Dalesia’s room (no need to register that way) before going home to Florida. McWhitney says it would be nice if the rent-a-cops just gave up when they saw the Commandos. Dalesia opines that they have to put up some kind of token resistance, just to feel okay with themselves afterwards. Parker says the only stupid thing the uniforms could do would be to shoot at them, since that would get them all killed.  Dalesia points out that Parker’s going to be in a borrowed police car, so nobody will be shooting at him.  “It’s still stupid,” he says.

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Also at the Green Man Motel, Sandra Loscalzo comes back to her room and switches on her police scanners.  She doesn’t want to stop the heist, doesn’t even know what exactly is being heisted, but if there’s a way to include herself in, she’s going to find it.

Sandra had once heard a definition of a lawyer that she liked a lot.  It said: “A lawyer is somebody who find out where money is going to change hands, and goes there.”  It was a description with speed and solidity and movement, and Sandra identified with it.  She wasn’t a lawyer, but she didn’t see why she couldn’t make it work for her.

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Elaine is really drunk now.  If you were forced to watch a lot of bankers give speeches, so would you be.

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Wendy calls Jake at the hospital.  She wants to give him a pep talk, about how he mustn’t give up, just deny everything, she’ll get him a good lawyer, etc.  And when she means if they catch him out, he can always tell the law everything he knows about these guys who like nothing better than exterminating rats, to get a shorter jail sentence.  (This is her way of encouraging a man who couldn’t even face two weeks in a county lock-up to establish an alibi).  So buck up, baby brother!  By the time she’s done, she’s annihilated whatever nerve he had left.

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Briggs is at the motel, but he can’t sleep.  He’s pacing around like a caged animal. The MassPike is right outside, and he wants to be on it, even though he’s exhausted from the long drive. Retired from active service though he be, part of him wants to join in.

It was the job those three were on; that’s what had agitated him.  He’d been away from that business a long time, and he’d forgotten the rush it involved, the sense that, for just a little while, you were living life in italics.  You weren’t really aware of it when it was happening to you, but Briggs had seen it in Parker and Dalesia and the other one, and he’d found himsel envying, not the danger or the risk or even the profit, but that feeling of heightened experience.  A drug without drugs.

Like any addict, he’s got to get away from the opportunity to relapse.  So he hits the road. Having reminded us all why we’re reading these books.

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On his way south, Briggs passes a nice restaurant, and who should be there but Detective Second Grade Gwen Reversa and her criminal defense lawyer boyfriend, Barry Ridgely, about who Gwen knows everything there is to be known, because she checked him out like a potential perp after the first date. They talk shop, of course, and she tells him about her encounter with ‘John B. Allen.’  That quote’s up top, ending with a very good question.  And for all the words I’ve typed here, I don’t really know the answer for sure. Did Stark?

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Elaine’s had enough.  In several senses of the term.  She excuses herself, and walks to her Infiniti parked outside, trying to look sober, and not succeeding.

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The armored cars are still on their way.  Parker and the other two have dinner. At a diner. Not the one at the intersection where they’re going to lie in wait shortly. That one doesn’t serve dinner.

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The armored cars pull into the Green Man Motel, where Myron and Isabelle are just kissing each other good night.  The security men are going to take a quick nap, then head for the bank at around 1:00AM.

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Having eaten, the crew needs two cars for the job, not being dumb enough to use their own.  They steal an old rustbucket from a used car lot for McWhitney and Dalesia to drive, and then Dalesia takes Parker to some miniscule Hamlet that can’t even afford a regular police department, but gets enough ski traffic in the winter as to need to hire two retired cops for a few months each year–and the rest of the year, their only squad car is in a garage behind the town hall.  Won’t be missed for a while.

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At Deer Hill Bank, it’s time to start packing everything up to be loaded into the armored cars.  Elaine’s supposed to be there, to see which car has the cash.  She’s home, sleeping it off.  Elaine, you had one job……

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Jake was so agitated from his sister’s pep talk, they gave him a pill.  But he just refuses to chill.

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Parker is in the squad car.  Not the first time he’s driven one of those.  Not as good a string as the one in Copper Canyon.  Then again, the finger on this job isn’t out to destroy a whole town.  Just herself, mainly.

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Sandra is glued to her scanners, and she’s starting to pick up chatter relating to the armored cars.  Cops clearing the route.  She can tell something’s up, but she’s not sure what.  Yet.

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Dalesia gets the truck to transport the cash in once they dump the armored car. Rented with McWhitney’s credit card, the one related to the bar he owns.  Back to the factory, where McWhitney is waiting with the stolen Chevy Celebrity.  The name of a real car make.  This isn’t a Dortmunder novel.

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Sandra sees the armored cars leaving the motel, figures there’s a connection, but can’t get to her own car in time to follow them, so she goes back to the scanners.

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Elaine doesn’t show at the meeting spot where she was supposed to give Dalesia the number of the money truck.  Surprise. He races to the ambush spot, and tells Parker.  Parker gets into the pick up, and directs him to the Langen home. Elaine’s got some ‘splainin to do.

Frightened as she is to see Parker standing by her bed, she’s even more horrified to realize how much she screwed up.  She’s got to drive back to the bank, where the party is long over, and get the truck number.  She repeats it all the way back to where Parker is waiting.  “One-oh-two-six-eight.”  

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Jake’s starting to wake.

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Sandra has gotten a rough idea of the route the armored cars are taking, and you remember her favorite quote about lawyers.  She’s going to try and be there when the money changes hands.

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Everybody’s getting in place now.  Soon.

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Sandra sees two police cars, one parked by a diner at an intersection, apparently empty.   The other has real cops in it.  The first one isn’t empty.

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Filled with panic and pain-killers, Jake decides he’s got to get out of the hospital, run away, can’t go back to prison, not ever.  He’s not fit to walk yet, but he somehow manages to get his clothes on, and inch his way down the staircase on the seat of his pants.  It takes a long time.  But he’s outside.  No hospital can hold Jake Beckham!

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Jack watches in satisfaction as his life’s work of destroying his father in law’s life’s work is completed.  He’s mainly just worried about the bonds and securities–there’s a lot less cash than before, because they’ve been letting people take it out without putting more back in.  Somebody says he thought he saw Elaine’s car.  Jack says she’s asleep in bed.  He’s happy to think of the misery she’ll feel tomorrow.  You know what misery really loves, Jack?

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Dalesia and McWhitney are where they’re supposed to be.

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Sandra is where she’s not supposed to be, which we gather is where she always wants to be.

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Jack Langen drives with a few other bank officials, to the new improved home of the Deer Hill bank’s assets.  Shorter route than the armored cars are taking, they’ll be waiting when the money arrives.  He’s playing Sinatra.  Thinking about that future trophy wife.  Forgetting the current wife.

______________

Sandra is right on the spot when the Carl-Gustafs lay down their royal edicts. Chaos ensues.  A squad car appears out of nowhere–looks familiar–three of the Navistars are totaled, the mystery squad car cuts the fourth one out of the herd, using the loudspeaker to direct it away from the carnage, to safety, right?  No, that can’t be right.  That car’s a ringer!  It’s the crooks!   She’s an officer of the law.  You know, kind of.  Okay, not really.  More of a relic of America’s frontier history.  Cue the identity crisis.

She had to tell them; she had to let them know.  The story isn’t here, with these blocked roads and burning trucks and dazed people.  The story just went away with the only armored car that wasn’t hit.  Get after that phony cop.  She actually had her hand on the door handle, shifting her weight to get out of the car, when she thought again.  Wait a second.  Whose side am I on here?  If those are my three guys–and who else could they be?–I don’t want them arrested, I don’t want them in jail.  That way I’d never get the proof I need on Mike Harbin.

Keep going, fellas, she thought, as she put the car in reverse and U-turned backward away from there.  Keep going and I’ll see you in a couple days.

Quickly the fires shrank and then disappeared from her mirror.

Reminds me of this time I saw a Red-tailed Hawk and a Cooper’s Hawk in the same place, and there’s bad blood there, family feud, you know? But then this murder of crows showed up, started chasing the Red-tail, because they like to chase all hawks, and the Red-tail was bigger and slower, they could attend to the small fry later.  They don’t want these hardened predators robbing nests they’re supposed to be robbing. Crows are simultaneously the crooks and cops of the bird world.

The Coop, about the same size as a crow, joined in with the mob for a moment, caught up in the excitement of the moment. But then you could almost see a thought balloon appear over his head–“What am I doing?” and he darted off the other way before the crows noticed him. It’s a bit like that. Except the Red-tail wasn’t going to meet up with him later so they could do business.  I never said it was a one-to-one analogy.

So that’s Chapter 1 of Part Four.  Six chapters left in the book.   We’re over 5,000 words.  Why don’t we cut it short here, and synopsize Chapter 2 next time, as this eight part review of a 295 page novel continues.  Happy Columbus Day.

(I had you there a moment, admit it.)

In spite of all the little personnel snafus with Jake and Elaine and Myron, the heist went off like a dream, everything happened the way it was supposed to, and they got away clean with the cash.  Zero fatalities. The disoriented men in the truck put up no fight at all–what little nerve they had left, McWhitney scared out of them with his psycho act that isn’t 100% an act.

This would normally be the part of the book where one of the partners turns on the others, or some interloper tries to get the loot away from them, because nothing can ever be easy for Parker.   There has to be a hitch.  This time it’s the law.  That’s a switch.

They make it to the factory in fifteen minutes, switch the cash to the rented truck in under ten.  And as they head for the church to hole up, they hear choppers overhead.  They split up, to avoid attention.  On the way there, Parker sees Dalesia with the rented truck, waiting for a break in the chopper surveillance, since a truck’s what they’ll be looking for.  When Parker arrives at the church, McWhitney is already there, looking even more irate than usual.  “I don’t like how fast they’re being,” he says.

They planned for every contingency–except the new communications tech. Except massive terror attacks ramping up readiness.  A machine built to stop Al Quaeda is being used to swat flies. And thing is, because of the hardware they used, the law can’t be sure they’re not Al Quaeda, or something like that.

Law enforcement in recent years had come to expect an attack from somewhere outside the United States, that could hit anywhere at any time and strike any kind of target, and they’d geared up for it.  Because of that, the few hours Parker and the other two had been counting on weren’t there.

The church is a solid hideout, but it’s not set up for them to stay there a long time, because they’d never planned it that way.  The plan was to get out of the area before the net closed.  Could they get away?  Sure.  With the cash?  Not a hope.

Parker improvises in the clutch, perhaps his most valuable talent.  The choir loft is full of boxes full of hymnals, similar to the ones the money is packed in.  Put the boxes up there.  Put a layer of books over the cash.  Leave.  Come back later. They pack up and go, in three different directions.  Parker hits a roadblock after a few miles–his ID holds up.  This time.  He’s got four thousand in cash from the bank in his pocket.  He finds a diner and sits down to eat.

There’s a TV showing the news there.  Parker sees Myron Madchen at a podium, making a statement to the press, with his lawyer standing next to him.  They got Jake.  Of course. He talked.  Of course.  What he said was not very coherent, but still pretty incriminating. Madchen is there to talk about his patient–but he himself is a person of interest, as they say.

His lawyer says it’s very wrong to cast any suspicion on the good doctor in his hour of bereavement–his wife just died.  Of a heart attack.  He’s in shock–never saw it coming.  Parker doesn’t have to be much of a detective to solve that mystery.

Gwen Reversa is on next.  She’s going to make first grade in no time.  Taking a modest little bow for having sensed something funny about Elaine Langen, who is now in custody.  Not quite the way Elaine wanted to get revenge on Jack, but something tells me that providing your wife with information used in an armored car heist is not the fast track to success in the banking world.

Then they show a police sketch of ‘John B. Allen’–presumably drawn from Reversa’s very distinct memories of that brief encounter with Parker.

They think that’s me, Parker thought, and studied it, as the interviewer’s voice, over the picture, said, “This is almost certainly one of the robbers.”

An 800 number appeared, superimposed over the drawing.  “If you see this man, phone this number.  Rutherford Combined Savings has posted a one-hundred-thousand dollar reward for the capture and conviction of this man and any other member of the gang, and the recovery of the nearly two million, two-hundred thousand dollars stolen in the robbery.”

Parker looked up and down the counter.  Half a dozen other people were gazing at the television set.  None of them looked to be ready to go off and make a phone call.  It seemed to him, if you told one of those people “This picture is that guy.  See the cheekbones?  See the shape of the forehead?” they’d say, “Oh, yeah!”  But if it wasn’t pointed out, they’d just go on eating.

Parker has never been much impressed by the drafting skills of police sketch artists. Reversa didn’t have a dash cam when she stopped him in her plainclothes Plymouth Fury, or it might be much worse. Parker pays the check and walks out. It’s much worse. There’s a squad car parked by his Dodge.

John B. Allen.  One computer talks to another, and it doesn’t take long.  He’d been moving through the roadblocks just ahead of the news.  John B. Allen is wanted for robbery over here.  John B. Allen rented a car over there.  Let’s find the car, and wait for Allen to come back to it.

He strolls towards the trees by the parking lot.

Final chapter.  Well, it really could be this time.  Chapter 7.  Don’t tell me Stark doesn’t have a sense of humor either.

Parker is climbing the increasingly steep wooded slope by the diner, stopping here and there to look down, check out the situation.  He’s thinking as he goes that the bank people are lying about what they got, they always make it more. The haul was just a bit over a millon, he’s sure.

Less than expected. Nowhere near enough to bankroll the escape fantasies of the comedy team of Elaine, Jake, and Dr. Myron, not that it matters now. Still, Parker’s biggest score ever, if you don’t factor for inflation, which of course you do.

His idea is he’ll wait for them to decide he’s not coming back, then go back down, maybe steal another car, catch a bus, something.  Not gonna happen.  Oh, there’s a bus, all right. Well, a van.  Full of dogs.  Parker’s bane.  He’s always feared them, more than the humans and their machines.  So much more focused.  So much harder to fool.  One or two he can handle.  Not a pack.  With armed handlers backing them.

He doesn’t wait for them to come out of the van.  He’s seen this movie before. You will detect a note of angry sarcasm in his thoughts as he clambers upwards, as relayed to us by Stark.

Soon he heard them, though.  There was an eager note in their baying, as thought they thought what they did was music.

Parker kept climbing.  There was no way to know how high the hill was.  He climbed to the north, and eventually the slope would start down the other side.  He’d keep ahead of the dogs, and somewhere along the line he’d find a place to hole up.  He could keep away from the pursuit until dark, and then he’d decide what to do next.

He kept climbing.

“As though they thought what they did was music.”  I guess everybody really is a critic.

When this book came out, people were heard to wonder out loud–mother of mercy–is this the end of Parker?  It could have been.  Westlake was maybe four years from his own end when it came out.  If he’d put off writing the next book much longer, this would be the finale, and we’d be debating that very question in the comments section.

But just as in Breakout, when he got Lyme Disease in the middle of writing it, kept typing feverishly until he’d gotten Parker out of jail, Westlake couldn’t leave Parker there on that hillside, the dogs closing in for the kill.

Not literally, of course–they must be bloodhounds, German Shepherds don’t bay. Bloodhounds won’t do much more than lick you when they catch up, but you know what I mean.  Whether he goes down in a hail of police bullets, or gets taken off to prison forever–he’s over.  The second fate would be the worst. There’s a reason he didn’t kill Jake Beckham for not following his alibi instructions. The inability to suffer confinement is something he can understand. He said so at the time.

Now he’s going to have to understand somebody else. Somebody much more like–well–us.  Parker is crossing much more than the border between Massachusetts and upstate New York as he climbs that hill.  He’s crossing the line between his world and a place we’ve never really seen him in before, for any great length of time.  What he would call The Straight World.

Not so straight as he might think.  If he gets lost, he can always ask directions from the parrot.

 

(Part of Friday’s Forgotten Books)

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Filed under Donald Westlake novels, Parker Novels, Richard Stark

Review: Nobody Runs Forever, Part 2

crossroads-diner-nj

McWhitney sighed and slipped the automatic out of sight under his jacket.  “I’ll tell you what happened,” he said.  “I fell for an old one.”

“Yeah?”

“This guy Keenan, he comes to me, he says you told him he should ask me where to find Harbin.”

Dalesia laughed.  “Why would I do that?”

“That was my question.  What were you up to. But it wasn’t you up to something, it was Keenan.  That’s the old dodge, he tells me you told him this thing or that thing, then I’m supposed to figure it’s okay to tell him more.”

“He had no idea what was going on.”

“None,” McWhitney agreed.

“So that was a big mistake he made.”

“Yeah, it was.”

Dalesia grinned. “I bet he learned a lesson from it.”

“Yeah.” McWhitney nodded.  “He learned the harp.”

Bit of a mystery about this week’s covers.  The British edition, from Robert Hale Limited, is well done as always (Hale did some of the finest cover art I’ve seen for this series, and that’s going some).  Nobody will ever convince me Parker looks like that, but you make allowances for regional preference. Other than physiognomy, I’d rank it over the Mysterious Press cover art, which I do like quite a bit, but this is more specific.

The Italian edition, from a different publisher, seems to be a blurry close-up of that cover.  What’s up with that?  If they had the rights to the Hale art, why wouldn’t they just use it?  If they didn’t have the rights, or didn’t want an identical cover, why not just commission something along similar lines?  Hale is gone, as of 2015, its imprints now owned by The Crowood Press, and sorry I am to hear it.  Another independent gone the way of all things.  Shall we assume they never had the deep pockets to do anything about it if somebody glommed their art?

Also, could one of my German readers explain the alternate editions for the Parker novels I find on Amazon.de?  Two imprints of the same publisher?  The shared theme for this one was snakes.  I could think of more fitting novels in the series for that motif, but effective, all the same.   Unless Parker is supposed to be the snake, and I think everyone knows my zoological take by now.

And my penchant for prologue, but I’ve run on long enough here.  Notice how the foreign publishers just translated the original title?  (Not the French, as we’ll see next time, but they always go their own way.)  Something about this particular title struck a deep chord.  Let’s cut back to the chase, shall we?  While we’ve still time.

In all of the Stark novels but the last three Grofields, the book will have four parts, identified by number only.  One of them will be the round robin section, where you explore a variety of perspectives and Parker is not heard from much, or at all.  Part Two is the round robin this time, as happens now and then in the series–it’s usually Part Three.

But when there were a lot of people in the mix, many of them not really connected to Parker’s world, he sometimes opted for Part Two, so he could establish those perspectives, introduce key players Parker doesn’t know about yet, set things up for the big finish.  So that’s a bit out of the ordinary, but wait until we get to Part Four.

Part Two kicks off with a chapter from the POV of Gwen Reversa, a tall good-looking blonde Massachusetts State Police detective, with their CID unit, and I’m not sure they call it that in reality, nor do I think there are a lot of people with that last name, going by the fact that the online White Pages only came up with one match.  I’d guess it’s reverse-engineered (nothing implicit about that pun) from one of several similar French surnames, and Mr. Westlake is playing his name games again, but he draws attention from her last by telling us about her first.

Gwen Reversa had decided to change her first name from Wendy even before she knew she was going to be a cop.  The name Wendy just didn’t lend itself to the kind of respect she felt she deserved.  Wendys were thought of as blondes, i.e., airheads.

Or good little witches who date friendly ghosts, but never mind that now.  She found out Wendy is short for Gwendolyn, and there was an end to that (and isn’t the most famous Gwen in fiction a not over-bright blonde who got killed by the Green Goblin so Spider-man could date a much smarter redhead?  Never mind that either.)

She’s at the local hospital to talk to Jake Beckham about his being shot in the fleshy part of his thigh as he was leaving the motel he works at.  He suspects Parker of having done it, but he can’t very well tell her that.  So he talks a lot, she listens to what he doesn’t say, and knows he’s hiding something.  She knows he’s lying about not suspecting anyone, and about not being involved with Elaine Langen anymore.  She believes him when he says the husband didn’t do it.  But she figures she’ll go talk to his recently divorced sister, who is going to be taking care of him during his convalescence.  And is named Wendy.  She’s looking forward to it.

Chapter 2 is about Myron Madchen, Jake’s personal physician, there to see him, which he shouldn’t be doing (he’s not a surgeon), but he’s doing it anyway.  He’s very worried to learn there’s a cop there talking to Jake.  He’s worried about everything in his life.  In a bad marriage, to the unpleasant woman who put him through med school, who will never give him a divorce.  In a tense passionate affair with a lovely young married woman whose drunken husband is beating her, and all he can do is patch her up prior to illicit coitus.

They want to run away together to California.  But his practice isn’t that lucrative, and he doesn’t have the cash.  Hence Jake Beckham.  Hence Dr. Madchen taking a very real risk of going to prison for aiding and abetting a felony.  He may end up wishing it had been that easy.

Chapter 3 is Elaine Langen, tooling along in her white Infiniti, which isn’t really hers,  and neither is anything else.  That’s why she’s doing this.  God bless the child who’s got her own back with interest.  Just like Madchen, her woes stem from a very bad marital choice she made, that her father told her not to, and when will fathers ever learn?

The fact was, when Harvey believed he knew hat was best for his daughter, he was almost always right.  Her angry feuds with him were not because he was wrong, but because he left her no space to come to the right answers on her own.  Since he preempted the right, she had no cohice, the way she saw it, but to defiantly claim the wrong as her own.

Thus, Jack Langen.

Well, it wouldn’t be for too much longer, and in the meantie Jack wasn’t particularly hard to get along with, all wrapped up as he was in the coming merger.  A self-involved man, once he’d captured Elaine and the bank she sat on, he was content to let life just roll along.

Especially now, with this takeover that he’d insisted on, over her own objections and the posthumous objections of Harvey, relayed through Elaine.  This was not a merger!  It was a swallowing up, and Elaine knew it, and so did everybody else.

Well,  Jack would be happy in the new headquarters of Rutherford Combined Savings, where he could play at being an old-money banker the rest of his life.  And Elaine would be happy in the South of France, with all the money she’d need until the found the right well-off replacement for Jack.  And Jake Beckham would be happy wherever he decided to go with his piece of the pie, so at the end of the day everybody’s happy, so what’s the problem?

Well, for one thing, there isn’t likely to be enough money in that armored car to make all these people happy for very long (Elaine is forgetting Dr. Madchen & the mistress, not to mention inflation and the rate of exchange with the Euro), even if nothing at all goes wrong with the heist.

Something’s gone wrong already.  That’s why Parker is waiting for her when she gets home.  Always the best detective in these novels, because he overlooks all the distracting static and focuses on the essentials.  And right now, what’s essential is that Elaine give him her gun.  The one she told him she knew never to pull out unless she was ready to use it.

Since the chairs all faced the television set, he half-turned one toward her before sitting down.  Then he said, “A pro would throw the gun away right after, but you’re not a pro and you are greedy, so you held on to it.”

“If you’re saying I shot Jake–”

“We’re past that,” he said.  “You did it, and sooner or later a cop is gonna show up here, and you’ve got a license for that gun.  They’ll want to see it.  If you say you lost it, they’ll get a warrant and search the house and find it and match it to the bullet they’re gonna take out of Beckham.”

Being called greedy had overshadowed everything else he’d said.  She said icily, “I really don’t see–”

“What happens to you, I don’t care,” he said.  “But if they nail you as the shooter, the whole bank job comes undone.  I don’t want it undone.”

She hit exactly what she aimed at–the fleshy part of the thigh.  She was worried Jake wouldn’t have an alibi for the heist, so she arranged one.  The same old personality flaw that sabotaged her before–the need to take control of situations she doesn’t understand well enough.  Parker is subbing for her dad now, and is giving her no room at all.  But that’s hardly his fault.  And then the maid tells Elaine that Gwen Reversa is at the door right now.

Terrified, she gives Parker the gun, and he goes out the back.  Elaine has a little conversation with Detective Reversa, which goes no better for her than it did for Jake, but they don’t find the gun. Which looks bad, but not as bad as if they’d found it.

Jack Langen shows up in his Lincoln Navigator (of course), right as they’re searching the house.  Elaine’s wrong about a lot of things, but she’s 100% right to think he married her for her daddy’s bank.  What she doesn’t know is more important.  1)She could still block the merger if she really tried–2)Once it goes through, he’s going to divorce her and get to work on that trophy wife, and–3)She’s getting alimony, of course. Maybe not South of France alimony, but he figures maybe Alaska, or some island.  Nice guy.

She doesn’t need the heist to win her freedom from him.  On some level, she probably knows this, doesn’t care.  She wants revenge on the man who helped her ruin her life, even if it means ruining it all over again.  Parker already knows this.  She doesn’t.  All Jack knows is that he better watch her close, because she’s lying about having lost the gun.

Chapter 5 is Roy Keenan, bounty hunter, tracking down the elusive Michael Maurice Harbin for the big government reward, and I guess he’s under the impression Joe Gores is writing this book.  He bribed a state cop in Cincinnati–a mere hundred dollars gave him some names, of guys at that card game that opens this book.  The card game where Parker killed Harbin with his necktie, but the cop didn’t know that, so neither does Keenan.  Not that he’d care, he collects for a dead body just as well, except it doesn’t occur to him that the people responsible for Harbin’s death might like him to stay lost. Habeas corpus and all.

This Willis gent he braced in Jersey was unhelpful, and maybe a bit intimidating, even for him.  He hasn’t been able to find Nick Dalesia, but Nelson McWhitney owns a bar on Long Island.  He figures he’ll drop Dalesia’s name and see what results he gets.  He gets his results in the back room.  Direct from Louisville.

He staggered rightward, against the wall, throwing his arms up to protect himself, yelling, “Wait! No! You got this wro–“and the bat came around again, this time smashing into his upraised left arm, midway between elbow and armpit, snapping the bone there, so that the arm dropped, useless, and amazing pain shot through him.

McWhitney stood in a tree axer’s stance, not a baseball stance.  “So Nick Dalesia’s got a big mouth, does he?  Thinks he’s a comical fellow, does he?”

“No, no, not like that!  Let me–”

“I’ll see to Dalesia.”

This time the bat smashed his jaw and flung him again into the side wall.  “Naa!” he screamed.  “Naa!”

But the jaw wouldn’t work.  He’d always used words; he was a talker; words got him into places and out of trouble, got him answers, got him everything he wanted; words had always saved him, but now all the words were gone, the jaw couldn’t work, and all he could bleat was, “Naa! Naa!” Even he didn’t understand himself.

“Say hello to Mike Harbin,” McWhitney said, so at least he got the answer to that question, and the bat was the fastest thing in the world.

Chapter 6 is where the former Wendy meets the present one, as Reversa, still making the rounds, goes to see Jake’s sister at the trailer park.  Wendy Beckham (back to her maiden name, now that the divorce is final) is a nice person, the kind who takes care of family, and she knows her brother hasn’t always behaved himself, but he’s still family, and she needs a project.

Reversa shares a bit of what she knows, and Wendy realizes this project is going to be harder than she thought.  He wasn’t just dipping into the bank’s money, he was dipping into the bank manager’s wife.  And now this pretty young detective thinks the wife put a bullet in his leg–not to kill him, but to render him inactive a while.  Why?  That’s something any sister would like to know, so she goes to the hospital for a little heart to heart.

Chapter 7 is just Grace, Dalesia’s  former wife, talking to her pal Monica about how she still occasionally does things for her ex-hubby the heistman.  She’s basically serving as his mailbox.  She just got a fax with the number 4 written on it and nothing else.  The day of the big money move, but she doesn’t need to know that.

Chapter 8, Gwendy (she can’t shoot me, she’s a police officer) comes back at Jake a little harder this time, and he’s genuinely rattled when she lets him know who really shot him, but he improvises a story about why she might do that (hell hath no fury), and why he’d never consider pressing charges, even if they can prove it.  After all, she was just making a point.  Reversa shoots him a “Who do you think you’re kidding” look, and leaves.

The last two chapters are McWhitney and Dalesia ironing out this little misunderstanding on McWhitney’s part, and you can see how that worked out up top.  Dalesia’s less of a talker than the late Mr. Keenan, but he’s a lot less cocksure, and he speaks fluent heister. A language most skip tracers don’t speak well, if at all.  Honorable mention to Dan Kearny.

Before that rapprochement takes place, we see Dalesia, driving along the route he knows the convoy will take, looking for the best possible spot for an ambush.  An intersection, say.

And he believed he’d found it.  It was not part of any town, but it had a little commercial buildup around it; a cafe open only for breakfast and lunch, a gas station that shut at dark, a used-car lot with cards behind a chain-link fence and with a small shed out front with a handwritten sign on the door: PHONE FOR APPT.

The area was occupied, but not at night.  The roads heading north and east met other turnoff roads almost immediately, making an escaper’s route very hard to guess.  At the intersection itself, the two roads coming up from the south and east met at dogleg angles, no straight lines.  And the diner, the used-car shack, and the layout of the gas station made for a somewhat constricted area around the intersection.  The armored cars would have to come through very slowly.

For breakfast and lunch, the diner’s parking lot at the front and left side was full of pickup trucks.  This was where the labor force in this part of the world ate everything but dinner.  They were all regulars, talking to one another about their jobs and their bosses and their favorite sports teams.  They paid no attention to Dalesia when he sat among them and spent some time over coffee at a window table at the front, looking out at the intersection, pleased with his choice.

The point was to be here before the armored cars arrived to set themselves in useful positions.  They had a rough idea how to pull it off, and how to lead the target car away, but where should they place themselves to begin with?  The armored cars would come up along that road over there, to cross the intersection northbound.  Parker and Dalesia would want their special one to go out the road on that side, they would want the other three armored cars to block the intersection there and there, and the more Dalesia looked at the place, the more it seemed to him they needed two guys on the ground and one to bird-dog the target.

Three.  They needed one more man.

The end result is that McWhitney becomes the third man on the job, since Dalesia figures they’ll need one.  So now this little podunk bank has to have enough money for Dalesia, McWhitney, Elaine, Jake, Dr. Madchen, and the hopeful future Mrs. Dr. Madchen.  And Parker.  Or really, Claire.   And that’s all he wrote for Part Two.

And maybe the most interesting POV character in this book who isn’t an armed robber hasn’t even been heard from yet.  We’ll see a bit of her in Part Three, but we don’t get into her head until Part Four, which ranges around almost as much as Part 2.  Weird.  This one breaks a fair few Starkian rules.  And the last two parts kind of dovetail together.  So I might as well bend one of mine, and cut this short (for me).  Make up for it next time, I’m sure.

Oh, there is one other key player we’ll be meeting next time.  Not really a POV character, but he makes his presence felt.  Swedish.  And a king.

 

(Part of Friday’s Forgotten Books)

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Filed under Donald Westlake novels, Parker Novels, Richard Stark

Review: Nobody Runs Forever

folded-film-poster-nobody-runs-forever-the-high-commissioner-1968-bp9nb2

When Parker got back to the lake a little before noon the next day, Claire was in the living room, reading a shelter magazine.  She tossed it aside, got to her feet, and said “Oh good, I was hoping you’d be home before lunch.  Take me someplace nice, with a terrace.  There won’t be many beautiful days like this left.”

“We can drive over to Pennsylvania,” he said.  There’s some places along the river there.”

She looked doubtful.  “With good food?”

“You want good food and a terrace?”

She laughed.  “You’re right.  Come with me while I look at my hair  We got a very strange wrong number this morning.”

“What kind of strange?”  He stood in the bedroom doorway and watched her poke at her trim auburn hair, which had been flawless when she started.

“He asked for somebody named Harbin.”

Thinking about it, it surprised him that there were always the same people in every job.

From The Man With the Getaway Face, by Richard Stark

In The Getaway Car, the thirteenth and penultimate section of that anthology of Westlake nonfiction is Jobs Never Pulled, which is a list of titles Westlake had considered but hadn’t used.  Many of them pretty awful–Cloak and Dagger, Clay Pigeon, Crossfire, Dark Angel.  Some are worse than that–and you will note, perhaps, that all those I mentioned have been used, though not by Westlake.  Perhaps not all when he first wrote them down (Crossfire was in theaters when Westlake was in his early teens), but good bet some of them had been.

He often fell back on well-worn clichés for his titles, which he would transform into ironic wordplay.  But some clichés are just too clichéd for that to work.  So he never used them, and just as well.

At the top of that list, there’s one title crossed out–the one you see above. Which had been the American release title of a Rod Taylor movie I haven’t seen yet (new DVD coming out in November, I’ve pre-ordered, can’t resist).  But which, going by every synopsis I’ve read, can’t be any kind of influence on the novel I’m about to review.  Maybe I’ll eat my words in November, but I’ve got to review this book now.

Pretty sure Mr. Westlake, like myself, was a fan of Mr. Taylor (I’ll explain why I think that some other time), but he only would have had to read the entertainment section of the paper back in ’68 to have seen that title.

The funny thing about titles is that they aren’t copyrighted.  In some cases they can be trademarked, but that takes a lot of lawyers.  You want to name your book Great Expectations, Moby Dick, or War and Peace?  Go ahead.  Only thing stopping you is the shadow you’ll be standing in. There have been a lot of books called The Hunter.  All but one have languished in obscurity.

Great cast, little-remembered film.  Bit of a dud when it came out, only available now under its original title, The High Commissioner. Doesn’t cast much of a shadow, does it?  But that American title is noir as noir gets. Fits Parker’s current situation (and his creator’s) like a well-worn black leather glove. That’s what I think happened here.

This is the largest panel in the Triptych (see previous article) going by word count. Almost three hundred pages in the first edition.  Longer than it needed to be, I think.  After a strong opening, it sags in the middle, then revives with a vengeance at the end.   Too much repetition of effort, not something you often find in Stark.  It’s what you might call a high-maintenance heist.

The grandeur of Plunder Squad and Butcher’s Moon notwithstanding, Stark, child of the gaudy paperbacks that he was, never fully adapted to the demands of the modern hardcover market–the pressure to crank out more pages to justify the cover price, be more ‘immersive.’  (Show me anything more immersive than those early Stark paperbacks, I dare you.)

If he had a big enough story to tell, not a problem, but this is more like half a story, with a completely different story sandwiched between.  Would have been better as a novella, leading into a shortish novel, leading into another novella–but who was publishing novellas then?  (Evan Hunter, but alas.)

No point crying over spilled ink, and I shouldn’t throw stones either, since I’m currently planning to make this review a three parter (the better to finish my final Stark review in one, since it wraps up the story this one kicks off).  Nobody runs forever; some bloggers come close.  However, I’d prefer none of the installments run over 6,000 words, so let’s emulate Stark at his best, and get to work.

The book begins in the middle of a card game, and we learn that poker can be a full contact sport in Parker’s world.

When he saw that the one called Harbin was wearing a wire, Parker said “Deal me out a hand,” and got to his feet.  They’d all come to this late-night meeting in suits and ties, traveling businessmen taking a break with a little seven-card stud.  Harbin, a nervous man unused to the dress shirt, kept twitching and moving around, bending forward to squint at his cards, and finally Parker, a quarter around the table to Harbin’s left, saw in the gap between shirt buttons that flash of clear tape holding the wire down.

As he walked around the table, Parker stripped off his own tie–dark blue with thin gold stripes–slid it into a double thickness, and arched it over Harbin’s head.  He drew the two ends through the loop and hanked back hard with his right hand as  his body pressed both Harbin and the chair he was in against the table, and his left hand reached over to rip open Harbin’s shirt.  The other five at the table, about to speak or move or react to what Parker was doing, stopped when they saw the wire taped to Harbin’s pale chest, the edge of the black metal box taped to his side.

(Loathe as I am to quarrel with such fine workmanship–Stark even describes the murder tie!–this story, as we shall see, takes place in the era of modern digital communications tech, as Parker shall have cause to lament.  It also takes place after 9/11, as we may infer from certain references later on.

Therefore, it is most unlikely even the most underfunded state police investigations unit–and that’s who was behind this–would have one of their informants wear a wire.  There were better ways to do it, long before then.  The convention lives on in crime fiction, and explaining how Parker somehow noticed a miniaturized listening device would have spoiled the rhythm of the scene. So, live with it.)

The rest of the chapter is the assembled felons (of whom Parker knows only Nick Dalesia, first and last seen in Butcher’s Moon) pretending to continue their game for the sake of whoever is listening in, while the guy who brought Harbin there to talk business,  red-bearded gent name of McWhitney, makes amends for his mistake by disposing of the body.  There was a potential job, involving a shipment of gold meant for people’s teeth, but that’s just as dead as Harbin now.

Parker leaves with Dalesia, who has an alternative score to offer.  A bank heist. Way out in New England.  Parker says what they could get from some piddling backwater bank wouldn’t be enough to justify the risk. Dalesia says they can get basically everything there, because it’s merging with a larger bank, and all the assets are going to be moved at one time.  They take out one armored car, and it’s all theirs.  He already knows the route.  It’ll be in a convoy of four, the other three running empty–they have to know which one has the cash, and that won’t be decided until the last possible minute.

This, as Parker quickly intuits, is where you need somebody on the inside, and Dalesia’s got somebody.  Or rather, an old friend of his does. Former security guard at the bank, named Jake Beckham. Got caught on the skim (hmm….)  Served time for it. Lives in a trailer park now, works at a cheap motel, wants a ticket to something better, figures this is it.

He arranges to meet them at his doctor’s office–doctor patient confidentiality means there can’t be any bugs there, and even if somebody was wearing a wire (or whatever they wear now), it would be inadmissible.  The doctor, Myron Madchen, is a mite bent himself, expects a nice taste of the proceeds, whatever they are–Jake’s not dumb enough to tell him, he’s not dumb enough to ask, but that doesn’t mean they aren’t both dumb about other things.

Jake’s been screwing the wife of the bank manager for years.  Daughter of the man who started the bank, she’s angry about the merger that will destroy her dad’s legacy, angry at her husband for tricking her into marrying him so he could take over.  She’s the one who can get them the info they need.  Parker smells emotion all over this one, and he doesn’t like it.  But so hard to find a lot of cash on the hoof these days.  This one could be worth millions.

The big problem right off is Jake wants to be part of the heist, and Parker and Dalesia both know he can’t be anywhere near it, has to have an titanium-clad alibi, because the cops will look at him hard.  He says Dr. Madchen will admit him to a local hospital, private room, and he can sneak out and meet them, then sneak back in afterwards.  No one will ever know!

 

Parker nixes that scenario, suggests an alternative–Jake’s on parole.  He breaks it by flying to Vegas.  He turns himself in there, says he was drunk, there was a woman.  They’ll have heard it a million times before.  Not like he killed anybody. They’ll lock him up, ship him back to New England, where he’ll be locked up some more.  He’ll be out again in a few weeks–after the job is done.

Jake hates every aspect of that idea.  Prison did not agree with him, or he with it. Plus he loved the idea of being in on the job himself (sticking it to the husband like the husband stuck it to him like he stuck it to the jerk’s wife).  He says he’ll go along with it, but without a whole lot of conviction.  Parker and Dalesia depart the trailer park with some trepidation.

As they drove, Dalesia said, “Jake’s problem is, he’s still part amateur himself.”

“He is,” Parker said.

“I like him, don’t get me wrong, but he didn’t start out to be one of us.  He started out to be a soldier boy, obey orders, get drunk, chase girls.  He got turned and turned, and he’s with us now because he’s got no place else to be.”

“He brings us a job,” Parker said, without emphasis, “he got us from the woman he’s in bed with.”

“I know.  It’s worse than a soap opera.  Do you think you got him to back out of this?”

“Maybe.  If not,” Parker said, “you’re the one he can finger.”

Dalesia laughed, but then he said, “No.  I put one in his head before that.”

“Then her head, too.”

Dalesia, considering, said, “You think so?”

“Never trust pillow talk.”

Dalesia thought about that for a while, then said, “We could just keep driving.”

“We could.”

“I got nothing else.”

“Neither of us has anything else.”

So they have to talk to the daughter.  Elaine Langen.  You might call her The Last Finger (except there’s one more, in the next book).  The first was named Alma, waitress at a New Jersey diner–where an armored car carrying a payroll would park, so the security men could eat.  Using a guy she’s sleeping with (named Skimm, hence the ‘hmmm’ ) to try and escape–and get even with the whole world.  She’s plotting a cross, which gets her killed, because Parker.

This finger was raised with money, isn’t planning any cross, just wants revenge on her dirtbag husband, with a bit of fuck-you money on the side–but otherwise it’s a lot like that.  Check out the descriptions.

First Alma:

She was in her mid-thirties, and her waitress-short hair, a mousy brown in color, was crimped all around in a frizzy permanent.  Her eyes were sullen and angry, glaring out at a world that had never given her her due.  She was heavily built, with broad hips and full bosom and thick legs, all of it solid and hard.  She had a double chin and a pulpy nose and a surprisingly good mouth, but the mouth was obscured by the hardness of the rest of her.

Now Elaine:

Well.  The first impression was of a slender, stylish well-put-together woman in her forties, but almost instantly the impression changed.  She wasn’t slender, she was bone thin, and inside the stylish clothes she walked with a graceless jitteriness, like someone whose medicine had been cut off too soon. Beneath the cowl of well-groomed ash-blond hair, her face was too thin, too sharp-featured, too deeply lined.  This could have made her look haggard; instead, it made her look mean.  From the evidence, what would have attracted her husband most would have been her father’s bank.

And now it begins to dawn on me at last that Stark knew all along what he was doing here, even if he didn’t know exactly where it was going.  As he had already done once, with the Dortmunder novella Walking Around Money, (credited to Westlake, but Stark was ghost-writing), he is consciously revising The Man With the Getaway Face.  Or, as Stark originally titled it, The Mask.

The second book in the series, the one that made it a series. The first that was really about a heist, that showed us what Parker was like when he wasn’t in mad wolf vendetta mode, the one that began to lay down the rules, the guidelines for what would come after.  The Hunter was the launchpad–The Mask the trajectory.  These last three books are the splash down.

You stay on the merry-go-round long enough, sooner or later you come back to where you started.  Dalesia, thin and dark, resembles Handy McKay quite a bit, has the same quiet competence and affable nature–less of his loyalty. It’s not that hard to see the parallels once you’re looking for them.  But see, that book came out more than forty years before this one, and the scenario can’t play out like last time.  The more things stay the same, the more they change.  No more Handy McKays in the world Parker lives in now.  Yeah, foreshadowing.

They tell Jake to tell Elaine to meet them at a service area on the MassPike.  There’s a cafeteria style restaurant there (a diner would be too on the nose).  She’s every bit as much of a handful as they thought, and even less of a professional than her lover.  Still, you have to give her points for brass.

She looked at the booth, looked at the privacy they’d arranged for her, and said “Thank you.”  She slid in and said, “Jake had to talk me into this, you know.”

Dalesia said, “Into this, or into the whole thing?”

Her laugh was brief and harsh.  “Into this,” she said.  “I had to talk him into the whole thing.  But I guess you two must agree with me.”

Parker said, “About what?”

“There was an old movie,” she said, “called, Nice Little Bank That Should be Robbed.”

Dalesia laughed and said, “That’s what we got here, huh?”  In the movie, did they get away with it?”

“I never saw the movie,” she said.  “I just noticed the title, in a TV listing.  It struck me.”

“Probably,” Dalesia said, “being a movie, they didn’t get away with it.  Movies are very unrealistic that way.”

She seemed amused by him.  “Oh? Do bank robbers usually get away with it?”

Well yes, Dalesia explains–in that the phrase literally refers to the robbers getting the cash away from the bank, and bank employees are instructed to let them do precisely that, so they pretty much always ‘get away with it.’  It’s the aftermath that tells the tale–if the robbers are stupid, as is often the case, they get caught or killed later on–if they’re smart, they may ‘get away with it’ in the more expansive sense of remaining alive and free and spending the money–perhaps multiple times.  But not too many.  Nobody runs forever.

(And yes, that’s a real movie title Elaine references, minus a prefatory article of speech, and I haven’t seen it either, but now I really want to, c’mon TCM.  As to whether they get away with it–yes and no.  Basically, the movie is making the same point as Dalesia.  Don’t go to the well too many times.)

It’s arranged that she’ll fax them the day of the big money move as soon as she knows it, using a fax machine at the bank itself.  The position of the money car is more time sensitive, and turns out the only way this can be worked is for her to go there that night, watch to see them loaded up, then drive to a pre-arranged intersection and give them the number of the car.  It won’t be the first or last of the four, she knows that already, but that isn’t enough.

Her only contribution to this job is information, but it’s an indispensable contribution. If they could get rid of Jake altogether, the job would work a lot better.  His relationship with both Dalesia and Elaine makes that impossible.  She’s not too enthused about his breaking parole to establish an alibi–mainly because she knows how much he hated prison.  But she accepts the necessity of his having an unbreakable alibi, in order for suspicion not to fall on her as well.

She tries not to show much bothered she is by their conviction that her husband knew about the affair with Jake all along.  She says she knows her husband, would know if he knew about her and Jake.  Her husband’s name is Jack.  Do I really have to spell out the implicit pun here?  Point is, much as she may think she is above suspicion, nobody would ever accuse the old man’s daughter, she better take care to establish an alibi for herself as well, call her husband the minute she gets home that night.

Frowning, she said, “You really believe it, don’t you?  That Jack will suspect me.”

“Whether he does or not,” Parker said, “do you like to take risks?”

“To wind up in jail, you mean?” Her mouth twisted.  “Prison orange is not my color.”

Really?  I’ve heard it’s the new black.  Parker notices she’s got a gun in her purse, which she’s very defensive about (there’s a lot of that going around lately, can’t imagine why). She kids on the square about how they’re playing good cop/bad cop, complains they never even offered to buy her a cup of coffee, and departs.  Leaving them less than reassured of her soundness, but they still have nothing else.

Parker goes back to Claire in New Jersey, they go swimming together in Colliver Pond, in the warm September weather, she’s wearing a bright blue bikini, and let’s just say Parker has a lot to lose here.  Then again, women like Claire come with a certain amount of overhead built in, even if they’re happy with a small house on a lake in Northwestern Jersey that they have to vacate during the summer, when it gets all touristy.  Anyway, Parker has to work whether he’s got a woman or not.

She tells him the bank account is getting low, so he goes to his bank–caches of cash, concealed in little hidey-holes he’s made inside surrounding vacation cottages, that he can easily access when they are unoccupied, which is most of the time he and Claire are in residence there.  It’s a neat system.  No interest accruing, to be sure.  But you know, with the market so volatile of late, call it a hedge fund.  Perhaps in actual hedges, at times.

He comes back to the house, and Dalesia left a message to call–bad news.  Jake went to his scheduled appointment with his parole officer like a lamb.  They head back to Massachusetts to see if the lamb needs slaughtering.

They go to the trailer park this time, never mind the doctor.  Barge right in.  Jake tells them he knows what they’re going to say.  Parker says he was going to say the job works just as well if Jake is dead.  Dalesia, the good cop, is in general agreement with this sentiment, with the difference that he feels personally let down by his old camping buddy.

Jake’s rattled, but sticks to his guns–he can’t do another minute of time.  He won’t.  He came up with a better version of his medical alibi.  Madchen will diagnose him with stomach problems, he’ll be in a hospital ward, not a private room, and he agrees he can’t sneak out to participate in the heist.  He’s already talked to his parole officer about it–meaning that it’s a fait accompli.  And if they kill him, Elaine will be too scared to play ball.  Not liking it one bit, Parker gives in.

Back to Claire again, leading to the exchange you see up top.  Which I’ve found interesting for a while now, for two reasons.  Reason the First: Would Parker know or care what constitutes good food?  I guess he knows the difference between rare and burned.  It seems more like a Westlake Foodie thing.  Away from major cities, you pretty much do have to choose between classy ambience and good food.  Even in major cities, you have to look pretty hard and pay through the nose to get both.

Reason the Second: Claire’s a redhead?  She was introduced in the ninth book of the series.  This is the twenty-second.  First time we’ve ever been told what color hair she has.  She was depicted on the cover of three of the four Gold medal originals, each one drawn by Robert E. McGinnis.

I’ve always preferred the brunette.  But that’s just McGinnis, perhaps going with his personal preference of the moment, given no visual cue in the books–or else he just assumes that if a woman has red or yellow hair–in a crime novel–you mention it.  For whatever reason, his final take on Claire is a strawberry blonde.  And is being pawed by somebody we assume is Parker (though it could be one of her abductors), who looks an awful lot like a younger version of McGinnis himself.

I could probably spend a good five thousand words just speculating on Westlake’s reasons for telling us what previously only Parker and Claire’s hairdresser knew for sure.  Five thousand wasted words, because in the final novel of the Triptych, which takes place just a few weeks later, she’s suddenly ash blonde, and Parker doesn’t say one word about that when he sees her.  Okay, it’s Parker, why would he care, wolves being colorblind and all.

Is Stark messing with the heads of his faithful longtime readers?  Westlake, in truth, never cared all that much about matters follicular himself–to the point of sometimes describing this or that character as having ‘hair-colored’ hair.  He doubtless had been asked by some readers whether Claire was blonde or brunette, as most of his female love interests had been in the past. Only redhead I can think of offhand in the Westlake canon is Jigger Jackson, from the ill-starred Who Stole Sassi Manoon?

I saw one exchange where a fan asked Westlake why Parker had started out as a blonde, then had dark hair–but that reader was just responding to the early cover art, since none of the books ever described Parker’s coif that way–it did seem to get darker over time.  As did that of the author himself.  Childhood photos of him show a tow-headed boy, adult photos show a man with hair both dark and rapidly thinning –it’s an Irish thing, as me and one of my sisters can attest–we were both born blondes.  We didn’t stay blonde.  (Maybe because we got smarter.)  I went from blonde to brown to salt & pepper.  Sis was a redhead by choice, last I saw her.  It’s just hair.

Point is, by starting to define Claire a bit more, after decades of letting us (and the cover artists) imagine her, Stark is making her less of an ideal.  She’s going to start coming into focus more and more during this and the final book–leading to some questions about the long-term stability of her arrangement with Parker.  She’s now freely discussing a job with him, before it’s even pulled–she never used to want to hear a word about what Parker did to earn their living.  But that’s been changing for some time now.  Like everything else in Parker’s world.  Except Parker himself.  He adapts.  It’s not the same thing.

The third thing about that scene with Claire is the important thing–the guy who called looking for Harbin.  Who is dead, you should recall.  Parker does.  Not long after that, the guy calls again.

“I’m looking for Harbin.”  The voice was gravelly and a little false; not as though he was trying to sound tougher, but softer.

“Which Harbin would that be?”

“The Harbin from Cincinnati.”

“Don’t know the guy, sorry.”

“Hey, wait a minute, I think you can help me.”

“I don’t.”

“From your phone number, I got a pretty good idea of your general geographical location.  I can get up into that northwest corner of New Jersey in, say, an hour.  Give me directions to your place, we can talk it over.”

“There’s nothing to talk about.”

“I just don’t want to leave a stone unturned here,” said the gravelly voice, sliding back and forth between menace and gentleness.  “I’m the kind of guy, I’m dogged, I just keep coming.”

People who tell Parker they know where he lives tend to end up going, but there’s no point telling this guy that.  He obviously knows he’s living life dangerously.  He plays a little game of tag, agreeing to meet the guy at a gas station by the Delaware Water Gap, having no intention of keeping the appointment, not expecting the mystery caller to do so either, but figuring he can spot the dark red Chevy Suburban the guy said he was driving.  (Parker’s driving a Lexus himself, but he didn’t mention that over the phone.)

Whoever is behind this, they know about surveillance.  Parker never sees the Suburban, but he still gets followed back home–spots the tail, black Honda, tall good looking blonde woman inside.  Like the wolf he is, he tries to double back, lead them away from the den, from his mate, but no good.  He finally parks, and waits for the mystery caller to identify himself.

Parker’s heeled, Beretta Jetfire .25, a handgun smaller than most hands (but look at all the movies it’s had cameos in).  Parker never did go in for ostentation much. Nor has he ever been much inclined to mince words.

Parker showed him the Beretta.  “One step back; I don’t want blood on the car.”

The guy took the step back, but he also gave a surprised laugh and stuck his hands up in the referee’s time-out signal, saying, “Hold on, pal, it’s too late for that.”

Too late?  Parker rested the Beretta on the windowsill, his eyes on the other’s eyes and hands, and waited.

The guy nodded toward the supermarket.  “Sandra’s already been on the horn with the DMV.  Claire Willis, East Shore Road, Colliver’s Pond, New Jersey Oh-eight-nine-eight-nine.  Why don’t you wanna have a nice little talk?”

“You’re not law,” Parker said.

The guy shook his head.  “Never said I was.”

Being with a partner, running a license through Motor Vehicles, having all the time in the world for a stakeout, not particularly impressed by the sight of a handgun.  “You’re a bounty hunter.”

“You got it in one, my friend,” the guy said, grinning, proud of either himself or Parker.  “If you’re not gonna blow my head off, I can reach in my jacket pocket for my card case, give you my card.”

“Go ahead.”

“Not that a Beretta like that’s gonna blow anybody’s head off, the guy said, reaching into his jacket, coming out with a card case.  “Though it would make a dent, I give you that.”

Roy Keenan Associates.  Sandra’s the associate, and Roy mentions she packs a S&W 357.  Parker could try getting her too, with his dinky little rod, but wouldn’t it be easier to talk?

There’s a big government reward out on Harbin, which Keenan can collect just as well by proving Harbin’s dead.  We still do that dead or alive thing?  I thought that was just Steve McQueen.  Googled around, seems to be a bit of a grey area–you can’t shoot the guy in the back and drag him in, no legalized murder, but you can bring in a dead body to collect, as long as you didn’t plug the guy in the back. If he resists, and you shoot him, you get paid.  Somebody else shoots him and you dig him up, same deal.  Keenan would take that deal all day long.

Keenan’s got Dalesia’s name as well, and perhaps a few other names from that ill-fated card game the book began with.  He doesn’t know much of anything else–like Parker strangling Harbin with his tie–or he wouldn’t be this close.  He tells Parker he’s not giving up until he finds Harbin, or Harbin’s corpse.  Parker figures there’s no point mentioning the third option and leaves.

He calls Dalesia, to warn him, only to hear yet more bad news.  Jake’s been shot in the leg.  He’s in the hospital, which was part of the plan, but there’s cops asking him questions, which wasn’t.  One of those cops is also a good-looking blonde, who we’ll meet next week.  See, you mention a woman being blonde in a crime  novel.  There’s three blondes in this one.  All of them trouble.  Well, that’s a crime fiction thing too.

That finishes Part One.  We’re over 5,000 words.  I actually have enough cover images to make this a four-parter, if I want.  Nobody runs forever, you say?  Try and stop me, coppers!

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Filed under Donald Westlake novels, Parker Novels, Richard Stark

Mr. Stark and The Triptych

Beckmann;+The+Departure

When I sent Ask The Parrot, the previous Parker novel in the series, to Stephen Moore, my west coast agent, he said, “Oh, does that mean it’s going to be a trilogy?” “No, no,” I said, “This is just the next book in the series.” But his question stuck in my mind. Although Ask The Parrot had nothing to do with the book before that, Nobody Runs Forever, except that it starts one second after the previous book ends, and although Ask The Parrot does close out its own story and characters pretty satisfactorily, it was true there were some messy strings hanging out of Nobody Runs Forever and some cash up there in New England that Parker and his associates thought they had a right to. So, thanks to Stephen Moore, Dirty Money started to grow in my mind. Maybe it’s more a triptych than a trilogy, where the side panels reflect on one story and the center panel reflects on something else. At any rate, it closes out the triplet, tercet, triangle, and the job is done. And no, it won’t be a tetralogy.

Donald E. Westlake, blogging about himself.

“For me this painting is a kind of rosary, or a ring of colourless figures, who can glow when there is real contact and who tell me truths that I cannot express with words and did not know before. It can only speak to people who, consciously or not, have within them more or less the same metaphysical code.”

Max Beckmann, referring to his 1932 triptych, Departure

It’s been about three and a half years since I reviewed The Hunter (with a Starkian brevity I can only glance back upon in wonder now–and I thought I was being so bold and undisciplined, making that review a two-parter).

And here I sit, twenty four reviews later (counting the Grofields), prepared to look at the last three Richard Stark novels we’ll ever have.

Not the best of them, by any means.  Not the worst either (that’s still Flashfire).   But having subjected the saga to such intense scrutiny over that much time, I feel entitled to say that I don’t know of a more riveting, intriguing, or satisfying multi-book journey in all of literature, nor one that closes itself out with such integrity, if not finality.  And if we’re talking about a series based around one character that proceeded over the course of a score or more novels and close to five decades–well, I can’t say I’ve encountered its equal.

The runner up for me would be the Aubrey-Maturin novels of Patrick O’Brian (I know, two characters, but I think of them as one), which I devoured back in the 90’s.  And they were still coming out at the time, so I kept reading, and came to wish I hadn’t.  After The Commodore, the story was complete, even if Bonaparte was still at large.  The Yellow Admiral was a pleasant enough coda to the dance.  Then the masts toppled.  Would I had not read a word of the remaining two and a half books.  An unpleasant surprise (still better than the movie with Russell Crowe).  O’Brian was having his troubles towards the end, but who isn’t?

Series fiction is harder than most people think.  And more important than most critics will allow.  Oh, they’ll acknowledge there are ‘serious’ writers who have dabbled in it. (Dabbled?  More than half John Updike’s novels are series fiction.)  But there is always the suspicion that by writing one book after another about the same set of well-liked creations, a writer is merely playing to the pit, repeating him or herself, to ever-diminishing effect.

And that’s usually the case, if not right away, then eventually.  Did we need most of the latter run of Sherlock Holmes stories?  Conan Doyle clearly didn’t think so.  (I sometimes think he was getting revenge on the public for rejecting his knightly romances about Sir Nigel and the Hundred Years War.)

Any idea, any character, can be exhausted through repetition for repetition’s sake.  Even Wodehouse, perhaps the ultimate master of series fiction, was flagging at the end.  As was Westlake, just a bit, in his last few Dortmunder novels, which have much of Wodehouse in them.

Stark never did.  Past his prime, perhaps.  His potency?  Not hardly.  Some people say he got a bit softer.  I say he got even starker.   This Triptych begins with Parker strangling a man with a necktie, at a card game.  Towards the end, he strangles another man with one hand.  But that’s not really what I mean by starker.

There was always a certain romantic element to the series, from the start. Westlake said himself that Stark was a romantic. By which he meant an idealist; Parker representing that perfect Platonic form, that everything else in creation is aspiring to, and never quite attaining.  He’s real, but he’s not real.  He’s a man on the outside, but he’s the furthest possible thing from a man.  He’s a wolf on the inside, but you can’t be a true wolf without others of your kind around you, and he’s alone.  He’s evil, he’s honorable, he’s beyond category.  An insoluble mystery, which is why he belongs in this genre.

And in the earlier run of novels, written mostly for the crime paperback market, Stark indulged our desire for larger than life adventure.  Parker goes to war with organized crime.  Parker steals a forgotten art treasure.  Parker loots an entire town.  Parker sacks an island casino run by a German aristocrat who used to be a Nazi.  Parker steals rare coins and finds an even rarer woman into the bargain. Parker steals the payroll from a military base.  Parker steals the box office for a rock concert, and then defends it from a pair of drug-crazed longhairs.  Parker fights an army of mobsters in an amusement park, then comes back later to decimate that mob, decapitate it.

Well, there’s none of that here.  He robs a tiny rural bank and a minor upstate racetrack.  Positively mundane.

And there were the vendettas–the most impractical thing about him, therefore the most romantic.  His need to finish things with those who violated his sense of order, who transgressed against unwritten laws.  Well, there’s none of that here either.  No Mal Resnicks, no George Uhls, no treacherous gang lords (well there’s one, but if he’s plotting a cross, it’s coming later, and there was no later).

There are people he needs to kill, and he does, but it never has that personal feeling to it.  It all makes sense, from his standpoint.  He’s calmed down a lot since the first book.  I guess you could say calmer means softer.  Parker never would.  To him, a well-ordered mind is the deadliest weapon you can wield.

So while I think most of the best writing in the series had already been done years before, in spite of my undying love for the grand gory guns-a-blazing scenarios that have played out in past decades, I can still appreciate what’s being done here–how everything is scaled back, made more real, less fanciful, so that you could almost drive through Northern Massachusetts, or upstate New York, and imagine you see him, at a gas station, or a crossroads.  It’s all taking place at the northeastern tip of America.  Westlake country.  The Stark Lands.

Westlake began this process with Comeback, but there was still much of the old romance there.  There’s none by the end.  Because really, what room is there for romance in this world we live in now?  Because old men see the world differently than young men.  And Westlake was old now.  So was Stark.  But he’s aging better, because what he has to do is simpler.

Westlake was the more sophisticated writer (so there were more things that could go wrong).  The farceur, the satirist, the social commentator.  Indignant and irreverent at the same time.  Dry, whimsical, witty, compassionate, urbane. Stark just had to be dry.  Until things got wet.

The saga had begun without any plan for it to be one.  The Hunter was supposed to be a one shot, that ended with the random death of its random anti-hero protagonist.  And just as randomly, Bucklin Moon, who I will always believe saw in Parker’s story some funhouse mirror image of his own, demanded a rewrite. Parker would live. Parker would win.  Parker would go on being Parker.  (And Moon ended up retiring to the Florida Keys, where Parker was thinking about going at the end of the book.)

So Westlake followed up with a book that followed right on the heels of the previous one, but somehow skirted away from that storyline.  Parker is hiding behind a new face, planning an unrelated job, and it goes off pretty well, with a few complications, but the way it ends, he’s realizing he’s going to have to confront unfinished business from the earlier book.  So that’s what he does in the third book.

And whether Westlake knew it or not, that was the first Starkian Triptych.  And it just went on from there, until there were twenty-eight novels, about Parker and his thespian sideman, Grofield.  Three more than he wrote about Dortmunder, Tobin, Holt, and Joslyn, combined.  Not that numbers tell the whole story, by any means.

Westlake probably never got over this quirk of fate, that gave him his second (and more lucrative) steady contract with a publisher, got him out of having to write crap he didn’t believe in.  Now he was writing crap he did believe in–makes a difference.

Now having strong relationships with two first-rate editors, Lee Wright at Random House and Moon at Pocket, he could perfect his craft,  really figure out what this writing gig was about, while supporting his family.  Breathing space. Parker got him out of a tight spot, and he never forgot it.  He’d sell the novels to Hollywood (or Paris), but never the character.  Parker would remain Parker, and his cinematic counterparts, well or poorly executed by committee, would be something else, something less.

He had his little ambiguities about the devil he was dealing with.  Mr. Westlake had a criminal mind, but not the heart to go with it.  He wasn’t sure this was what he was supposed to be writing, and I doubt any writer worth reading is ever sure about that.  He abandoned the Stark voice, then learned it had abandoned him.  It only came back to him once he’d reached a certain age, and Parker no longer represented the romantic in him, but the realist.  Which, at a certain age, means the same thing as fatalist.

And this sense of fatalism permeates the second unplanned Triptych, beginning with the title of the first panel, which had an ending so stark as to make readers who’d been there from the beginning ask if the man with the getaway face had made his last getaway.

He hadn’t, but that brings us to the second and major panel, which takes Parker out of the underworld he normally inhabits, into our world–and guess what?  It’s not that different.  He just sits there most of the time, watching us go through our paces, fine civilized people that we are.  And wonders what the fuss is all about.  Some people didn’t get it.  Thought it was too quiet, too uneventful, too rustic.  Some people never do get the point of anything. You know what Max Beckmann would say about that?

At some point, he must have realized he was unconsciously echoing the first Triptych (the word, incidentally, occurred quite independently to me, before I ever read that quote I put up top).  It was time to get back to the themes of the first panel, finish that story.  But to leave some things unfinished, in case he had a little more room to run afterwards.  As matters worked out, he didn’t.  Mexico beckoned in the distance.  Oh well.  You know what they say.

Autumn is here.  Winter is coming.  I had to get that in there somehow.

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