Tag Archives: Parker novels

Review: Jimmy The Kid, Part 2


When Parker got to the intersection he made a U-turn and stopped, facing back th way he had come.  He and Angie waited in the Dodge while Henley took the ROAD CLOSED–DETOUR sign out of the trunk and set it up blocking the numbered country road, with the arrow pointing toward the smaller blacktop road leading off into the woods to the right.

Kelp went over and set up the sign.  It was a three-by-four piece of thin metal that had once advertised 7-Up, and the shape of the bottle could still be seen vaguely through the yellow paint.  Kelp had also thought to bring a triangular arrangement of sticks to lean the sign against, a detail not  mentioned in Child Heist.  He put the sign in place, trotted back to the Caprice and said, “How’s that?”

Dortmunder looked at it.  It said ROAD CLOSED–DETURE.  He said “Jesus H. Goddam Christ.”

“What’s the matter?”  Kelp looked all around the intersection, worried.  “Did I put it in the wrong place?”

“Do you have that goddam book on you? ”

“Sure,” Kelp said.

“Take it out,” Dortmunder said, “and find the page where they set up the sign.”   Turning to May, he said, “I’m following a book he read, and he doesn’t even know how to read!”

Kelp said, “I got it.”

“Look at it.  Now look at the sign.”

Kelp looked at the book.  He looked at the sign.  He said, “Son of a gun.  Detour.  I thought sure you–”

“You can’t even read!”

Between the film adaptations, foreign editions, and reprints, I think this book got as many different covers as anything Westlake ever wrote–more than I feel like featuring here, but I am bemused by how many of the first edition foreign covers prominently featured that well-known rodentine leader of the club that’s made for you and me.  Do I have to spell it out?  The American covers mainly didn’t go there.  And I assume that’s because the Disney legal department has a lot less clout overseas, and couldn’t be bothered to chase down every last little trademark infringement.   Surprised Ballantine Books risked it for the paperback reprint, though it’s pretty clear that’s just a kid in a mask.  The Japanese cover makes it look like Mikki-san is actually in the book.  Nefarious.  And delightful.

But if you want true pop cultural sacrilege–


Much as I agree Kelp and Dortmunder have a sort of hardboiled Stan & Ollie vibe going on a lot of the time, this is just wrong.  I mean, clearly Dortmunder is the Ollie in that relationship, but he’s the skinny one.  And somehow I just can’t imagine Kelp getting all weepy and squeaky-voiced when Dortmunder admonishes him.  And Stan & Ollie with guns?  Pointed at a child’s back?  It’s very very wrong.  I’m surprised at you, Denmark.  You’re supposed to be setting an example here.

So last time I mentioned Lionel White’s The Snatchers.  His second novel, published by Gold Medal in 1953.  I now have a copy in my possession (they’re thin on the ground these days), and the first thing I have to say is that it sucks as a novel.  As a rough blueprint for a kidnapping executed by two French criminals, it seems to have worked very well.  So the kidnappers in that book get away clean, right?  Of course not.  Every last one of the kidnappers are dead by the end of that book.  I’m not sure any of White’s criminal protagonists are ever alive and free at the end of his stories.  Nobody was doing that in the early 50’s.

Patricia Highsmith didn’t publish The Talented Mr. Ripley until 1955, and that was an extreme outlier in the genre until at least 1962, when The Hunter came out.   Writing in the early 60’s, Westlake originally had Parker cut down by police bullets at the end of The Hunter, and was persuaded to change that ending by Bucklin Moon.  Westlake later said he didn’t want to kill Parker, but that was just how you were supposed to end that kind of story, with that kind of protagonist.  He would have assumed the book wouldn’t sell otherwise.  Highsmith was much better established when she wrote the first Ripley book, having had Strangers On A Train adapted by Hitchcock.  And she still makes you feel at the end like Ripley’s going to get his someday.

I doubt any crime writer of that general period, even Highsmith, would have shown a gang of kidnappers grabbing a small child, getting their money, and walking off into the sunset.  That would be a hard sell today–certainly for anything published as popular entertainment.  Highsmith did write a book about a well-off couple’s little dog being kidnapped and murdered by a low-life sociopath, who pretends the dog is alive to get money out of the couple.  Virtue is rarely rewarded in her books, nor is evil always punished, but Highsmith loved animals (people not so much), and she made damn sure the bastard got what was coming to him.

The kidnapping in White’s book is planned by a cool calculating fellow named Cal Dent, looking to score big and retire.  His gang are a mixed bag of misfits and psychos, he being the only solid pro in the group (a pattern White returned to frequently)–and there’s one really hot blonde who’s along for the ride to provide sexual tension.  It’s told mainly from the POV of the kidnappers, the kidnap victim, and the victim’s lovely young red-headed nursemaid (Irish, of course), who got snatched as well, which leads to more sexual tension, of course.  The kid and the nursemaid both survive in the end, thanks partly to Dent having a change of heart, making a noble sacrifice.  Hey, I didn’t say it was Richard Stark.

Cal Dent is extremely reminiscent of Parker, though–a forerunner, you might say.  This is a Dortmunder review, so I can’t go into much detail about it, but the similarities are striking.  The blonde looks at him and thinks he’s not even human, he’s like a lean tawny cat.  She wants to hook up with him, even though her current boyfriend is another member of the gang, and Dent tells her maybe after the job–no sex while he’s working (but he breaks that rule).

He has a conscience, much as he doesn’t want to admit it–the redhead isn’t like any dame he’s known before, gets under his skin, makes him regret he’s such a bad seed, arouses his bestial lust, and you’ve seen this movie before.

The kidnap plan is clever enough, the people executing it not so much, and there’s some strokes of bad luck nobody could have foreseen.  So the Peugeot kidnappers would have thought “Okay, we’re not crazy like those people, and we were born lucky, so we’ll do it the way it was supposed to be done, get the money, give the kid back, and no blondes or redheads until afterwards.”  It worked fine until, as Westlake said, they ran out of book, and did the usual stupid things people tend to do when they suddenly have a lot of money.  Quite possibly involving blondes and redheads.  I wouldn’t know.

The Snatchers has got some good ideas in it, and a nicely atmospheric Long Island setting.  But that aside, it’s mainly tawdry ‘ripped from the headlines’ melodrama, which makes sense given White’s professional background as a crime reporter (he can’t resist showing off his insider knowledge a bit).

White unquestionably was an important pioneer of the heist novel (once described as ‘The Master of the Big Caper’ in the New York Times, which can be annoyingly inconsistent in its literary standards).  But as anybody knows who has read Carroll John Daly–then compared him to Dashiell Hammett–getting there first isn’t everything.

I could easily see Westlake reading this book and finding Dent’s mindset interesting.  The other members of the gang feel like shopworn stereotypes.  Westlake would look to writers like Hammett, Himes, and Rabe to show him how to craft a good crime story, how to make characters jump off the page at you, how to avoid getting mired in cheap cliches.  That being said, you can get ideas from anywhere.

Westlake later went to some pains to identify White as the indirect inspiration of Jimmy The Kid–if he did draw some inspiration from White’s work when creating Parker, he might have felt a certain sense of indebtedness–and caution, since White was still alive in 1978, when Westlake wrote that piece for Brian Garfield’s anthology in which he told the story of this book’s genesis.  He once said that he didn’t like talking about his influences until the copyrights had expired.  Never give another writer an opening for a lawsuit, particularly if he’s not a buddy of yours, and your career is going better than his.

If White’s work was one inspiration among many leading to the creation of Parker, that means it also led to the creation of Dortmunder, since the latter began as an attempt to write a funny Parker novel.  So in a way, it all ties together in this one book.

One thing I can say with certainty now is that the kidnapping in Jimmy The Kid owes nothing to the one in The Snatchers.  Entirely different plans, entirely different crews.  And as I remarked in Part 1, it doesn’t seem like anything at all goes wrong with the plan in Child Heist, the ‘Richard Stark’ novel Kelp has become obsessed with.   Everything unfolds with clockwork precision in those three chapters we get to read from that book-within-a-book.

Briefly, Parker and his string identify a rich kid being regularly chauffeured to and from the city, and make sure the limo has a phone in it.  They follow the car, scope out the route in advance.  The next time the limo is heading back, they put up a fake detour sign, and lay a rather involved trap involving multiple vehicles (this is the part of the book Murch likes). They wear Mickey Mouse masks so the kid won’t be scared (it’s impossible to imagine Stark ever letting his people look that ridiculous, or for Parker to give a damn whether the kid is scared or not, and I’d be terrified if I saw armed men in Mickey Mouse masks–why not clown masks?).  There are two women in the string to look after the kid, keep him from panicking (and provide a pretext for May and Murch’s mom to be in on the action this time).

They make contact with the father, tell him to get the money, put it in a suitcase, and get on a highway of their choosing, to await further instructions.  They expect the father to have contacted the Feds, and for the Feds to be keeping a close eye on the limo, but they call  the father en route (that’s why they needed the car to have a phone).   They tell him to stop at an designated overpass, heave the suitcase over the guard rail, and leave.  They’re parked down below.  By the time the Feds figure it out, the gang has absconded with the loot.  We never find out how they were going to return the kid, and maybe that’s where something went wrong, and Kelp papered it over in his mind, like the French guys did in real life.

That’s Child Heist, and I don’t think we need mourn the fact that three chapters is all we get.  Westlake wrote it for ironic counterpoint, and that’s all you get from it.  Still better than The Snatchers, though.

And as you may gather from the quote up top, every last little thing that works perfectly in Child Heist falls to pieces in Jimmy The Kid.  But not all for the same reasons.  Kelp misspelling ‘detour’ isn’t a major problem, but it’s a bad omen.  The fact is, life is never as simple and stripped-down as it is in a Parker novel–that’s one of the allures of those books.  Yes, Parker has a lot of bad luck, but he never has any bad luck that makes him look silly.  When you read a Richard Stark novel, you get to watch a perfectly executed plan, then you get to watch some unforeseen complication sour it, then you get to see Parker find some way to salvage something from the wreckage.

But in a Dortmunder, there are no perfect plans, the bad luck never stops coming, and yet there’s always these odd strokes of good luck to counterbalance it, and keep Dortmunder from going back to prison, so we can laugh at him again later on.

Part of the problem is that Dortmunder and his string, while seasoned pros, are still clay-footed bumblers at times, because we all are.  They’re maybe a bit too nice for the business they’re in, a bit too easily distracted, a bit too (for want of a better word) Runyonesque.  Not only could they never harm a kid, no kid in his right mind would ever take a good look at them and think they could.  Another part of the problem is that the kid himself, Jimmy Harrington, is much smarter than any of them, and has his own agenda that they never figure out until it’s too late.   Mainly, the problem is that the God of their universe is Donald E. Westlake.

Right after they grab Jimmy (who is rather insulted they think he’d like something as babyish as Mickey Mouse) the phone in the limo rings–and it turns out a local Sussex County radio station–the exact part of New Jersey Parker and Claire settled down in, and I seem to recall Westlake lived there a while as well–has picked this exact moment in time to call Jimmy, because he wrote  to them about one of those those phone quiz contests radio stations love to do for promotional reasons that have never made any sense to me.

And the gang, caught off guard, can’t think of an excuse for Jimmy to get off the line.  So he sits there inside the limo, which is halfway inside a truck, answering every question perfectly, while the gang of desperate kidnappers waits breathlessly to see if this filthy rich  kid wins 500 bucks worth of prizes.  The last question is in astrology, and Jimmy doesn’t know that subject, but Kelp gives him the correct answer (that he knows, but not how to spell ‘detour’).

Now you can’t call that realism–there’s no way that would ever happen in an actual kidnapping, and they’d just disconnect the call if it did.  But it illustrates the sheer perversity of existence that afflicts us all.   Maybe you’d never get a call like this when you were kidnapping somebody, but if you got a call like this, it would happen at the worst possible time, bet on that.

Parker’s setbacks are usually related to human weakness in some way–that he can’t understand our confused identities, his own being so sure and settled.  But Dortmunder’s problem is that the universe itself conspires to make him look ridiculous–to undermine his self-image, his identity as a tough competent heist planner.  His cohorts will never betray him, as Parker’s routinely do–they’re more of an extended family than a gang, really–but that just makes things harder in many ways.  For one thing, it means he can’t just do what Parker does when his colleagues thwart him in some way–shoot them.  That’s a nice perk, you must admit.

They’re supposed to finish driving the limo into a truck Murch obtained, but the limo doesn’t fit, and the planks they put out to drive it up on won’t hold it, and this is something we’ve seen in so many heist novels and movies, driving one vehicle into another to confuse the law, and it always works flawlessly in stories–Dortmunder says fuck it, it’s too complicated, they’ll just drive to the hideout in their own car–anyway, doesn’t the father have to have the limo with the phone in it in order to carry out the rest of the plan?  What was the point of taking the limo to start with?   (And yes, Dortmunder did plan a job that involved driving a car into a truck in The Hot Rock, but in that case the car was a lot smaller, and the style of the series is changing.)

It took Murch a long time to find an abandoned farmhouse, like the one Parker’s string uses in their book, because they’ve all been converted into country houses by city people with more money than brains, so they can be featured in those hoity-toity magazines you see at your doctor’s office and never bother to read.  He finally found one, with absolutely no amenities of any kind, other than a roof and walls.

It’s really well-hidden.  The cops will never find it.  We know this because Murch himself can’t find it for quite a long time.   They just keep driving up to one converted farmhouse after another, and then get driven off by a seemingly endless succession of Great Danes and German Shepherds, all well aware their job descriptions include keeping the riff raff off the property   You ever think maybe Westlake had mixed emotions about country life?

Jimmy isn’t scared at all, now that he’s had a good look at these clowns, but he is determined to get back to his life as soon as possible (he’s got a film career to pursue), and he quickly escapes the locked room he’s in, finds a handy toolbox in the attic,  and uses it to rig the nails fastening the boards over the window in his room, so he can leave anytime he wants–they won’t even be able to figure out how he did it.  Which seems a mite sadistic.  But I don’t think it’s meant that way.  He’s just acting out a different kind of story, and we all read those stories as kids, right?  “Daring boy adventurer outwits dimwitted criminals using ingenious methods.”   Those were cool.   Now if he was trying to scalp them in their sleep, that would be sadistic.

Now we get to meet Jimmy’s father, Herbert Harrington, and he may be the funniest character in the book.   He is genuinely (if distantly) fond of his son, who he had with his second (now-estranged) wife, relatively late in life, and Jimmy is turning out much better than his older brother, who we’re told is living on some hippie commune or whatever.  But Harrington Sr. is not one for big emotions, you might say.   He’s the rich guy in the book, and we’re well familiar with Westlake’s reaction to that class of human, but he’s not super-rich, and he earned his money doing something he genuinely enjoys (corporate lawyer), and Westlake is a dad himself, so Herbert gets off relatively unscathed.  Accent on relatively.

He’s just gotten off the phone with Murch’s Mom, and the whole thing was taped by the FBI, and they’re playing back the tape–he’s shocked that his voice sounds like that.  Is that really him?  The man has probably taped hundreds of memos for secretaries to type up, and he never listened to one.

He knew Jimmy had been kidnapped, because they let the chauffeur go back with the car.  He’s more confused than worried.  This is all so unexpected.  Anyway, Murch’s Mom tells him not to call the police, and he immediately tells her he already did (because they forgot to tell the chauffeur to tell him that, probably because the book didn’t mention it).   It’s a good thing he’s dealing with nice kidnappers here.

Murch’s Mom is confused as well, because she’s reading from a copy of Child Heist, and it doesn’t match up to the conversation that well, but she adapts the material as best she can.   They want Harrington to get one hundred fifty grand in cash.  He says that will take some time–would eighty-five thousand be okay?  No, it will not (Murch’s Mom is a bit shocked he’d even bring this up).   Afterwards one of the Feds asks him if he was actually haggling over his son’s ransom, like this was an ordinary business deal, and he realizes he was–conditioned reflex.   Man doesn’t know himself at all.

The head FBI man says this is a cunning gang of professionals, and there’s something oddly familiar about their MO, but he can’t quite put his finger on it.   Well, I doubt the Harringtons would have those kinds of books in their library, anyway.  Herbert says it’s interesting that Modus Operandi and Method of Operations have the same initials.   He’s taking all this rather well, you must admit.

That night, Jimmy escapes while the gang watches TV on a battery-operated set.  It’s easy.   Almost too easy.   But then he realizes that it’s cold, and it’s raining, and he can’t see even see the dirt road leading to the main road, and maybe this isn’t such a great idea after all.   Whatever kinds of stories he’s been reading, it seems they have their drawbacks in terms of practical application as well.

So he walks back into the house–he was supposed to be sleeping upstairs–in a locked room.  Everyone is startled, and they start grabbing for their Mickey Mouse masks, because he’s not supposed to see their faces.  Dortmunder is more concerned with how he got out, but when he starts interrogating the kid, May immediately takes Jimmy’s side, starts fussing over him like a mother hen, and the mystery of his Houdini-like escape remains unsolved or the time being.

Their cover has been blown now–the masks were really uncomfortable anyway–but in exchange for getting to stay up and watch a movie, Jimmy promises he’ll never identify them to the police.   It’s The Bride of Frankenstein–when I was twelve, I’d have promised anything to stay up and watch that, though Channel 9 usually showed the Universal horror pics on Saturday mornings, anyway.   Jimmy starts telling them about James Whale’s innovative use of camera angles–I probably wouldn’t have done that at age twelve, but I did know who James Whale was, because I read a lot of monster movie books–it was very sad that he drowned in his pool–the books were a bit vague about that part.  I digress once more.

Kelp, still stuck in his book, keeps his mask on a lot longer than the rest, but finally relents.  This living out a fictional story in reality thing is not as easy as he thought.   But all that’s left is getting the money–that should be a cinch!

So they tell Mr. Harrington to get on the road, with the notion of course being that they’ll call him and have him drop the money the way it happens in the Parker book.   But there’s a small problem.  The limo phone is busy.   For a long time.  Well, he is missing a day at the office for this, you know–there’s a lot of important work he needs to get done, and he brought it with him, and he’s using the phone in the limo to make business calls.  A man is allowed to do that in his own car, surely.  By the time Mrs. Murch finally reaches him, he’s all the way to the Delaware Water Gap.  A scenic wonder, as is well known.  He’d never been there before.  Never had the time.  So it’s not a total waste.

There are other problems–they are using Interstate 80, and according to the book, they have to find an exit that has no people or buildings near it.  There is no such exit on I-80, and Dortmunder thinks darkly to himself that he bets there’s no such exit along the Northern State Parkway on Long Island, which is what’s used in Child Heist“The writer had just been making things easy for himself.”   

Maybe my favorite scene in the book occurs in this chapter–Murch’s Mom, being the one picked to make the ransom calls, is trying to reach Harrington from a pay phone by a Burger King.  She drove there in a Plymouth Roadrunner her son thoughtfully stole for her.  But these bikers are outside the restaurant (technically, that’s what Burger Kings are) eating lunch, revving their engines, and making so much noise she can’t possibly have a civil ransom-related discussion with anyone.   What on earth can this helpless old lady do, faced with such inconsiderate ruffians?

Murch’s Mom, leaving the phone off the hook, stepped out of the booth and went over to the Roadrunner.  She had seen tools on the back seat; yes, there was a nice big monkey wrench.  She picked it up, hefted it, and went over to stand in front of the motorcyclists, who were sitting on their throbbing machines, filling their faces with whoppers.  She didn’t say anything; not that it would have been possible in any event.  She stood looking at them.  She thumped the monkey wrench gently into the palm of her left hand.  She lifted it, thumped it gently again, lifted it, thumped it, lifted it, thumped it.

They became aware of her.  Their eyes followed the small movements of the monkey wrench.  They looked at one another, and they looked at Murch’s Mom’s face.  Methodically, without any appearance of undue haste but nevertheless efficiently, they stuffed their mouths with the rest of their whoppers, packed their pockets with french fries, tied their Cokes to their gas tanks with little leather straps, and drove away.

Nobody fucks with Murch’s Mom.  Not even Murch.  And now I better show a picture of her car, before she gets mad at me.


(You can think what you like, but I think the Roadrunner is a tip of the hat to Chuck Jones and Michael Maltese).

So after every last possible thing that could have gone wrong has gone wrong (up to and including the Harrington limo being stopped for speeding by an overzealous state trooper who can’t wrap his mind around the fact that the chauffeur is an undercover FBI agent who likes to drive really fast), they get to the right overpass, and Harrington almost throws his briefcase full of business documents that he shouldn’t have had with him to begin with over the side, but it’s the suitcase of money that goes over–and right onto Dortmunder’s head, knocking him out cold.

But they have the loot!   It worked!   What can possibly go wrong now?   Well, for one thing, the book didn’t mention that the FBI has little tracking devices they can put into things like suitcases, and everyone, Herbert Harrington included, is amazed these people managed to find an actual abandoned farmhouse that has not been turned into a posh country home already, but that’s not important now–a small army of G-Men has surrounded the Dortmunder Gang’s criminal redoubt, and will move in shortly before sunrise, because Feds read books too, and that’s how these things are done.

(Perhaps now is the time to mention that the kidnappers in The Snatchers didn’t find an abandoned farmhouse on Long Island–they rented a summer cottage on the beach in the off-season.  I’ve gone through three Lionel White novels while researching this piece–no expense was spared–not an abandoned farmhouse in sight–it’s more of a David Goodis thing, wouldn’t you say?  Or, for that matter, a Richard Stark thing.  This isn’t a Lionel White parody.  Perhaps in part because there’s not enough of a style there to hang a parody on.  Oh, that was mean).

Jimmy escapes again–he’s grown somewhat fond of these strange people, but the weather has improved, and it’s time to go.  He did get to enjoy watching The Thing (1949, credited to Christian Nyby, probably directed by Howard Hawks) with them, so that’s something.

And as he leaves the house, better prepared for his escape, he hears the FBI men whispering to each other in the dark.  He thinks about it.  He goes back inside to warn the gang.  Dortmunder still wants to know how this damn kid gets out of a locked room so easy, and now he finds out, because that’s the escape route.  They sneak through the enemy lines, and camp out in the woods all night, cold and wet, watching Captain Blood (1935, Michael Curtiz, Jimmy would you please give the screen credits a rest already?).

Jimmy is still lecturing them about camera angles as the sun rises.  It’s time for them to find a car and get back to the city, but Jimmy asks if they can’t please wait until the movie is over?  It’s very well done!  “I’m almost willing,” Dortmunder said.  “I’d like to see something well done.”   He really can be such a Debbie Downer, sometimes.

Kelp, as we know, must always steal the automobiles of doctors, because doctors, being so aware of their own mortality, make sure they have the most comfortable life-enhancing vehicles.  But in this remote area, all he can manage is a van from a local veterinary practice that smells of sick dog.   They’re all ready to throw up by the time they get back to New York.

They drop Jimmy off at Eighth Ave. and 42nd St (we are informed that nobody there pays any mind, because a twelve year old getting out of a veterinarian’s van at 8:30am on a Friday is the most normal thing that’s happened there in years). He can get to his psychiatrist’s office and call his dad from there, then have his appointment, and of course enjoy a good gloat at Dr. Schraubenzieher’s expense, since someone was watching him, ha-ha, Q.E.D.!  He waves goodbye, and tells them not to feel bad.


Yeah, he took the ransom money.   Got it out of the suitcase when they weren’t looking, and stuffed it into his cute little Air France bag.  Didn’t think of that angle, did you, Richard Stark?   And just to add insult to injury, as rich people come out of the womb knowing how to do like no one else, he leaves them a goddam tip–a thousand bucks–two hundred apiece.  And that’s how the caper crumbles.

And next chapter jumps ahead about a year.   Richard Stark (the one who lives in Dortmunder’s world) is contacting his attorney.  He wants to sue the makers of a film called Kid Stuff, which is clearly based on his novel Child Heist, and is furthermore an irreverent burlesque of it.   This Dortmunderverse version of Stark is no more indulgent of such frivolities than the one we know.   He demands retribution.

But he shall not get it, because as his lawyer informs him, the director and writer of this film was one James Harrington, thirteen year old Hollywood wunderkind, whose rich father financed his first film to the tune of one hundred fifty thousand smackers (give or take a thousand).  It’s all based on his own real-life kidnapping, and is therefore legally bulletproof.   Because you can’t copyright real-life events.   Remember?

See, when the elder Harrington finally spoke to his son over the phone, prior to his release, he felt a surge of some emotion I suppose one must refer to as love. He’s been very distant and distracted the whole time, but he finally realizes he really did want his son back more than anything, and when the FBI guy asks him if he wants to hear the tape of the conversation played back, he says no–he’s afraid he might start weeping, and he doesn’t want that.

But once his admirably resourceful youngest son and heir presented him with the ransom money–then no doubt innocently raised the notion of making a movie about the whole thing–well, what proud father could say no?  And a father Herbert Harrington is, in his own constipated way.  And Jimmy Harrington achieves his career goal at roughly the same time he achieves puberty (convenient!).  Another identity puzzle solved–kind of.  Some people are born to win.   And others–well…….

The book ends with Dortmunder and Kelp–it’s been a year since they’ve spoken, for obvious reasons–and this time Dortmunder accidentally screws up a heist Kelp is pulling.  And he feels really bad about it.   Maybe he’s been too harsh on Kelp.  Nobody’s perfect, after all.   Perhaps those words will come back to haunt him in the near future, but in the meantime he and Kelp decide to go see a new movie together.   They don’t know anything much about it, but it’s supposed to be really funny.  Care to make a guess?

(I can make a little guess of my own–Westlake was probably writing the original screenplay for a movie called Hot Stuff right around the same time he was working on Jimmy The Kid, and that movie actually got made a few years later, and I’ll be reviewing it next, just to link in with this book.  I got the DVD, so I might as well.  My expectations are suitably low.   They did not shoot the script Westlake sent them.  Well, he wasn’t financing the film, was he?)

We are a race of storytellers, all of us–the only animal on this planet that is obsessed with the unreal (“The Dream Animal,” Loren Eiseley called us, and he got that right).  We don’t all make a living at it, but we all do it.   We tell stories based (often rather loosely) on things that really happened.   Then we start basing things we do in real life on the stories we made up–an endless feedback loop.  And when we run out of things that happened to us, we base new stories on stories somebody else made up, which are based on stories somebody else made up, and we try to add bits and pieces of ourselves to these stories to make them our own, and the result is that our identities are constantly trapped somewhere between reality and fantasy, original and copy.

Professional criminals exist in real life–then people write stories, make movies, based on what they’ve heard about these criminals and their exciting lifestyle.   Then the criminals read/see these stories, and think “Hey, that’s pretty neat!” and start adjusting their real-life behavior and appearance to be more like the fiction.  And then you start losing track of where the story ends and the reality begins.

And some people make obscene amounts of money feeding this hunger we have for stories.   And others use stories to tell us subtle truths about ourselves–and maybe even make us laugh at ourselves now and then.  Because we are one mixed up bunch of monkeys, and we might as well get a few laughs out of it, no?

And that’s all I have to say about Jimmy The Kid.  Except that earlier in the book, when May feeds Dortmunder all his favorite dishes to make him do this kidnapping job, one of the items she prepares is Boysenberry Jell-o.  And it does not seem any such Jell-o flavor ever existed.  

Just my little contribution to distinguishing reality from fantasy.  Feel free to make your own in the comments section.


Filed under Donald Westlake novels, Jimmy The Kid, John Dortmunder novels

Review: The Sour Lemon Score, Part 2

sour_lemon_score_7 sour_lemon_score_3sour_lemon_score_4sour_lemon_score_5

The whine was as sharp as vinegar now, the lines in her forehead looking like pencil strokes, crayon strokes, in the candlelight.  Then she leaned forward and said, “You’re really mad at him, aren’t you?”


“You’d really beat him up, wouldn’t you?”

It was what she wanted to hear, so he said “Yes.”

“I tell you what,” she said, her voice dropping, becoming more confidential.  “If I hear from George at all, I’ll call you.  Okay?”

Parker considered the offer.  Was there anything else under it?  No, he didn’t think so.  He said “All right.  That’d be good.”

“And if I think of anybody else, anything else that might help you, I’ll call.  Like Officer Dumek’s first name or anything like that.”

“Good.  You can reach me at the Rilington Hotel, in midtown.  You know of it?”

“Rilington Hotel.  I can look it up on the phone book.,”

“Right.  I’m in and out of there, so if I’m not registered when you call, just tell them to hold the messages for me.”

She nodded.  “You’re from out of town, then, is that it?”

“I’m in New York a lot of the time,” he told her to keep her interest alive.

It did.  “Then maybe we can get to know each other a little,” she said.  “I could show you around the city some, if you don’t know it very well.”

“After I find George,” he said.

“A one-track mind,” she said, smiling, “I told you that’s what you had.”

“That’s what I have.”

One thing you read about Parker quite often is that he’s a sociopath.   That word has gotten very popular in the last few decades, hasn’t it?   That and psychopath. We throw those words around a lot.  We have a tendency to use them interchangeably.  They started out as terms to describe certain specific (if perhaps not perfectly understood) personality disorders, and they ended up as catch-all phrases to explain why some people don’t seem to have a conscience.   We’re all born without a conscience, you know.  Some stay that way.

Near the end of The Sopranos, Dr. Jennifer Melfi, who has been treating Tony Soprano for years, and has long understood that he’s a thug and a murderer (and has been strongly attracted to him for much of this time) concludes he’s a sociopath, that psychoanalysis can only make him a more successful mobster, and refuses to see him anymore.  But it seems to me that’s just her way of detaching herself from a dangerous situation–an excuse to separate herself from a professional relationship that has gotten overly personal.

And it’s a professional and personal failure on her part–not her decision, but the way she justifies it.  Understandable, but to me it seems like a final expression of David Chase’s skepticism (that he shared with Donald Westlake) regarding the psychiatric profession.  They have a tendency to rely too much on labels.

Tony Soprano isn’t a sociopath.   He’s just a selfish bastard.  Like most of us.  His methods of getting what he wants are more direct and brutal than ours, because of the culture he was raised in, the people he interacts with, but he’s not really so different from us–he’s got the same passions, the same hungers, the same questions over what it all means.   That’s why we liked watching him so much (well, I did).

And that’s why a lot of people threw a hissyfit when they didn’t get to see him die at the end.   They wanted that sense of vicarious fulfillment from watching him kill his enemies, break every commandment–but then they’d be exonerated from guilt, in the good old gangster movie fashion, by seeing him die a violent painful death.

David Chase wasn’t interested in giving us that escape route.   Neither was Richard Stark.   If you enjoy watching criminals do their thing, that’s on you–decide for yourself what it means.  Everybody dies in the end, no matter how good they are.  Francis of Assisi had one of the most horrible lingering deaths imaginable (arguably worse than Jesus’ death, though less dramatic)–Gandhi and Dr. King went down bloody.   Plenty of gangsters, mass murderers, and dictators die peacefully in their beds.  Death isn’t a punishment for evildoing, any more than taxes are.   It’s just the logical consequence of having been born.   Some people are luckier than others regarding the manner and timing of their deaths.  That’s all.

This book starts out, seemingly, as a revenge story–a thief betrays his partners, kills all but one of them, who then comes after him.   It then morphs into a looming confrontation between the survivor hunting down the betrayer, and a third man, who decides to also pursue the betrayer, for reasons of his own.

It seems these three men are much alike–criminals and murderers all, they lack any sense of guilt or remorse over their violent behavior.   But this is a study in contrast–they are actually quite different from each other.   One is merely greedy, shallow, and self-aborbed.  One is clearly a sadist, and perhaps a genuine psychopath–certainly a fascinating textbook case from a medical viewpoint.

And one is–something else.   Something inexplicable to modern psychiatry (as we saw in The Green Eagle Score).   Something that falls between the cracks in our understanding of ourselves, and of the world we live in.   Something that lives in those cracks, and watches us with cold observant eyes.

As we pick up where we left off last time, Parker is observing Joyce Langer, George Uhl’s old girlfriend, at a Mexican restaurant on the west side of Manhattan.  She convinced him to take her out to dinner, and he let himself be convinced, because he needs to learn all he can about George, and he’s got to use her neediness and her attraction to him to get her cooperation.  He’s working now, and with Claire when he isn’t, so he feels no attraction to her at all.  A few books back, Joyce might have gotten lucky.   But she’ll have to settle for being lucky compared to most of the other people Parker talks to in this book.

As Part 3 begins, we get the now-familiar round-robin approach–six chapters, each from the POV of a character other than Parker.  We start with George Uhl himself–seeing the events from the time of his betrayal through his eyes.   He’d pulled five jobs before the one he did with Parker, and every time he’d wanted to kill the others and take it all for himself.  But there’d always been some reason to restrain himself–fear of retribution from mutual acquaintances.  He finally got the perfect chance, and he took it–only to realize, too late, that he should have shot Parker first.

He holed up with an old high school chum in Philadelphia, name of Ed Saugherty.  Ed had gotten himself a nice career, married a pretty girl named Pam, had two kids, bought a house with a lawn in the ‘burbs–as straight a life as a man could lead, but Ed, just like a lot of us reading this book, had always been fascinated by people who lived on the other side of the law.  He had admired George, idolized him, lived vicariously through him (and probably would have taken just a bit of satisfaction from reading about George’s violent death in the papers, but it won’t work out that way).

They reconnected after high school, and George, feeling insecure at first over Ed’s obvious success, was surprised to see Ed still admired him–

When George realized Ed saw himself as a dull wage slave and George as a guy with an exciting life, there was nothing for it but to agree with Ed completely and start playing the role to the hilt.  That second meeting had been full of wild stories, a few of them true, a few of them invented, a few of them adapted from paperback novels, and there was no question but that Ed would pick up the tab again.  And though George had really been in tough money shape just then, the main reason he tapped Ed for a loan was because he understood Ed’s myth-comprehension of him demanded it.  Ed pressed the forty bucks on  him with a smile of absolute joy, saying, “No hurry about paying this back, George, no hurry about paying this back.”

Staying at the Saugherty house, George checks in regularly with his current girlfriend Barri Dane, who lives in DC, and is acting as his answering service.   First he hears that Matt Rosenstein wants to get in touch–he gets a bad feeling about that, but not as bad as the feeling he gets when he hears from Barri that Lew Pearson said Benny Weiss wants to talk to him–he shot Benny Weiss in the head just a few days earlier.

That’s what brings him to Pearson’s house, figuring he’s got to nail down that loose end–kill Pearson, so he can’t talk about George to anybody (George has a tendency to make murder the answer to every problem).  He shoots Pearson from inside the house, without even trying to find out what’s going on–then realizes, again too late, that Parker was there by the pool as well, and he’s missed his chance once more.

He’s a young guy, early 30’s, slender build, dark thinning hair–description is actually a bit reminiscent of Westlake himself at this point, but maybe that’s reading too much into it.   He seems to have a fair bit of luck with women of a certain type–when he was seeing Joyce, he was also getting involved with Barri Dane, who we meet in the next chapter.

Tall, blonde, curvy, self-assured, a dance/martial arts instructor, and basically a Jacqueline of All Trades, it’s a bit hard to figure what she sees in George, but it seems like she’s just one of those people who are drawn to edgy situations–and characters.  Also, I kind of think Westlake might have modeled her a bit after Barri Chase, Fred Astaire’s TV dance partner (and sometimes girlfriend) in the 50’s and 60’s.  But this Barri’s dance partners are not so elegant.  Not a top hat in the bunch.

Matt Rosenstein shows up on her doorstep, wanting to know where George is–she knows about Saugherty (Uhl’s worst mistake, other than not shooting Parker first).  She doesn’t want to tell him anything.  Rosenstein loves it when people, particularly of the female variety, don’t want to tell him stuff.   Whatever martial art Barri might have studied, it isn’t going to do her one bit of good now.  To a guy like Rosenstein, that’s just foreplay.

While Rosenstein is doing a job on Barri, Paul Brock is back in New York, looking at the job Parker did on his beautiful West Village apartment.   He’s in shock over it.   It’s a rape, a murder, a sacrilege.   He can’t understand it.  All he did was drug the guy so Matt could ask him a few questions, take everything in his pockets, and throw him in an alley covered in cheap wine.  That hardly justifies ruining a man’s home.  He tells Rosenstein he wants to kill Parker himself.  Although Brock can be dangerous when you underestimate him, Parker never underestimates anyone twice.  Brock should recognize his own limitations, and stay out of this mess.   But there are reasons why he can’t and won’t do that.

Back in Philly, Ed Saugherty is more and more aware of what a terrible mistake he made letting George Uhl stay in his guest bedroom.   His wife Pam is furious at him, seeing George for exactly what he is.  His three young children are confused and frightened by the whole situation.  But he can’t admit Pam was right, so he refuses to throw George out.

He’s ready to let go of his adolescent man-crush on George, to embrace his boring but safe middle class life at last, but then George, who had headed off to parts unknown, leaving a suitcase full of money with Ed (not that Ed opened it to look), calls him and says he might have some unpleasant visitors soon.  He should leave the suitcase with somebody he trusts.  He should not tell them anything.   He should not call the police, because they’d arrest him for aiding a fugitive.  It’s too late for him to back out now.   He’s not just watching the exciting real-life crime story now–he’s living it.   It’s not as much fun as he thought.

And now we’re inside Matt Rosenstein’s head–it’s not a pleasant place to be, but he seems to like it well enough.  He’s described as ‘a heavyset man of forty-two with irritable, intelligent eyes and a heavy, stupid jaw.’ In his late teens, he got paid thirty dollars to beat some guy up, and he decided that getting to hurt and intimidate people for money was what he wanted to do with his life.  He’s found a great many ways to satisfy that urge since then.

The sex urge is a bit more complicated–he’s been with a lot of women, willing and otherwise, but it never quite lived up to his expectations.  Then he met Paul Brock when he got hired to do a bit of insurance-related arson for a boutique Brock owned a stake in.  He found himself seducing Brock, who was easily seduced, and though he never thought of himself that way–well, he still doesn’t.

As far as Matt Rosenstein was concerned, though, he himself was still straight.  Brock was a faggot, and the relationship they had was sex-based, but that was just because living with a guy had business advantages and other advantages over living with a broad.  Matt was still straight, and when he got a shot at a woman he still took it and it still wasn’t very good, but he was still straight.

Like Uhl’s woman down in Washington this afternoon.  Now, she might have been okay.  She looked as thought she ought to be a real tiger in the rack, but of course by the time she opened her head about Georgy Porgy she wasn’t feeling too frisky anymore, and the way it turned out she just lay there and took it when he climbed aboard.  So it was fun, but not a hell of a lot of fun.  Anybody in his right mind would prefer a Paul Brock to something like that.  You wouldn’t have to be a fag.

One of the things that most distinguishes a true sociopath, or psychopath, aside from his general lack of feeling for other people, is his utter refusal to understand himself.  He simply will not ‘own’ his actions, accept their implications.  This is why psychiatrists often conclude that treating sociopaths with ‘the talking cure’ is a waste of time–they aren’t interested in learning who they are, what makes them tick.   They don’t want to know. They just learn how to put up a better front.  They lie to themselves as much as to everyone else.  The capacity for self-knowledge simply isn’t there.   To Donald E. Westlake, there can be no more contemptible creature.

To me, the interesting thing about this little inner monologue of Rosenstein’s is that what’s most wrong with him (other than his being a rotten sadistic bastard, hardly an uncommon ailment) is not that he’s gay, but that he refuses to know that he’s gay.  He found out by accident who he was, the kind of person he was supposed to be with, but he keeps trying to prove he’s ‘a real man’–to live up to an image he has of what somebody like him is supposed to be.  He’d be a crook and a low-life either way, but he’d at least be himself.

If Uhl makes murder the answer to every problem, Rosenstein makes pain his.   His real high isn’t sex, but hurting people.  For any reason.  Or none.  To have power over them.  To feel superior to them.  To paraphrase Richard Pryor’s take on some guys he talked to when visiting a penitentiary, he’ll fuck you just to see that look on your face.   Charming fellow, eh?  I told you Otto Mainzer wasn’t the worst guy we’d ever meet in these books.

Back in New York, that other charming fellow, George Uhl, knowing he’s no longer safe at the Saugherty house, has no choice but to crash with Joyce, who he hasn’t seen in about a year, so he figures nobody will look for him there.  He talks his way through the door and into her bed (this is the only sex scene in the book), and she’s happy enough to have him there–until she realizes, once again, that he doesn’t care about anybody but himself.  Her ingrained sense of perpetual aggrievement takes hold, and as George sleeps the smug sleep of the self-satisfied, she leaves a message for Parker at the Rilington.  And then goes out.

Parker continues to rack up the miles–he’s been running down every lead he’s got on George, and they’ve all turned out to be dead ends.  He got to Barri’s apartment in DC, only to find Rosenstein had beaten him there, and very nearly beaten her to death.  The Pontiac he’s driving has a tendency to drift to the left, and can’t be much fun to drive, but of course it’s not about fun.   He’s got to find Uhl–to get his money–to make Uhl stop breathing. Then the storm inside him, created by Uhl’s treachery, will quiet down.  Then he can go back to New Orleans and be with Claire.

He calls in to get his messages from the Rilington–I’ll say again that these stories would make no sense in the era of cellphones and email–and finally, his luck changes.   And George Uhl’s runs out.

He wakes George none too gently, with a poke in the stomach from one of his two Smith & Wesson Terriers (see Part 1).  George is scared (and angry at Joyce, who he figures out right away must have ratted him out), but figures he can talk his way out of it somehow–Parker isn’t interested in talking–he swings from the floor, and a huge gnarly fist crashes into Uhl’s jaw, leaving him sprawled unconscious on the bed.

Parker still has the drug Rosenstein used on him to make him answer questions–using a combination of guesswork and past observation, he doses George with it, and eventually learns about Saugherty.  And that he’s got to drive to Philadelphia now–great.   Who wouldn’t want to be there?

Joyce runs back in–she’s belatedly repented of telling Parker where George is, and has come back to warn him–Parker ends up knocking her out too, just to shut her up.   He ties her to the sofa, and as he leaves, leading the drugged Uhl along like a compliant sleepwalker, she looks at him with solemn terrified eyes.   He leaves her alive–why not?  She doesn’t know a thing–not even who she is.

And now comes a moment readers of these books have been puzzling over since 1969.   Parker has all he’s ever going to get out of Uhl.   He has no more use for him.  No more reason to keep him alive, and we know that when somebody working with Parker betrays him, tries to kill him, takes money Parker sees as his, Parker needs to make that person dead.  We’ve known that since the very first book–that’s really how we came to know Parker, from watching him hunt down Mal Resnick, and seeing him squeeze the life out of Mal with his big veiny hands, like he was snuffing out a candle, and with about as much inner reflection involved.

Parker takes Uhl, still deep under the influence of the truth drug, out to the nearby New Jersey marshlands, to a spot his body won’t be found for quite a long time.  He points the gun at his prostrate form.  And he can’t pull the trigger. Mercy?  Compassion?   Guilt?  Conscience?   None of these things.   Parker himself can’t quite explain it–maybe no one could–but Stark gets us as close as possible to the truth–

It was stupid.  There was no sense in it, and things without sense in them irritated him.  Uhl was too docile, too easy.  Somehow he was too much like a trusting child.  Today or tomorrow he would wake up with a blinding headache and he would be again the guy who had twice tried to kill Parker, who had turned a very sweet job sour, who had killed his partners and stolen money that belonged to Parker, who had caused him trouble and discomfort of all kinds for five days in a row.  That’s who he’d been yesterday and that’s who he’d be tomorrow, and Parker wouldn’t think twice about exing that George Uhl out of the human race.  But that wasn’t who George Uhl was today.  Today he was a docile child, and with angry irritation, Parker realized that today he wasn’t going to kill George Uhl.

But neither was he going to leave Uhl capable of getting back into the game. Nothing could make him quite that stupid.  He put his pistol away again and bent over Uhl and broke three bones, all fairly important.  Uhl groaned once and frowned, but that was all.

When you’re attacked by a wild predator–not because it’s hungry, but because you’ve agitated it in some way, triggered the fight or flight response–and you can’t get away, or effectively fight back–what are you supposed to do?

Play dead.   Go limp.   Curl into a ball, cover your eyes, and hope the beast’s aggressive instincts will calm down–that it will be confused by your passivity, and will simply leave you there on the ground.  No animal other than man kills without provocation or a sound practical reason.  There are no Matt Rosensteins in the animal world, no George Uhls.  They do what they have to in order to survive.  Make them believe your death is not necessary for their survival, and they will leave you alone.

On a conscious level, Parker knows leaving Uhl alive is a bad idea.   Uhl will come after him again, someday (three books from now, to be specific).  If he doesn’t deal with him now, he’ll have to later on, and it might not go his way next time.  Consciously, he knows all this.  But there’s nothing he can do about it.  His conscious mind isn’t what pulled him into this situation.  If he was simply doing what made sense, he’d have gone back to Claire and waited for the next job.  It wasn’t that much money.  Not worth risking all he has to regain, that’s for sure.

He could always put feelers out, look for an easy shot at George later on, when George’s guard was down, if all he wanted was vengeance.   What he wanted was to calm the storm–but George’s strange comatose state of mind has done that already.  The feelings, the instinctive drives that make Parker kill have gone away–for now.  And without those drives impelling him, he can’t kill anyone.

Call him a wolf in the forest, a tiger in the jungle, a lion on the savannah, a bear on the tundra, a killer whale swimming endlessly through the sea of hardboiled crime fiction–whatever he is, he’s not like us.   He doesn’t kill when he doesn’t need to kill.   His conscious mind is strong enough to let him incapacitate Uhl for the near future–but it’s the beast within that’s really calling the shots here, at least when he’s working.  And the beast within isn’t hungry, or scared, or angry–so it leaves.  To seek its proper prey.  The money.  No time to wait for George to snap out of it.  Another hunter is on the trail.

Interestingly, Parker (or is it Stark interpreting for Parker?) thinks earlier in the book that by trying to get to Uhl through Rosenstein, ‘he’d succeeded only in setting another wolf on the scent.’  He seems to perceive other heisters as beasts of prey like himself, but if so, that’s a misperception on his part, as we can see when we look into their minds, and find the same delusions and pretensions that we see in our own minds (if we’re honest with ourselves). Parker knows himself better than any human ever could, but he doesn’t know everything.

He knows how to drive the 90 miles to Philadelphia (he must know parts of the route by heart at this point), and his seemingly endless commute up and down the eastern seaboard is nearly at an end now. He does a drive-by past the Saugherty home, and realizes Rosenstein and Brock are in there.

We’ve already seen in the Rosenstein POV chapter how he and Brock broke in there, and Rosenstein immediately put the question to Ed about where the money was. Ed has already left it with a friend. He tries to follow Uhl’s advice to not tell them anything at all–to convincingly feign innocence–that might have worked, except Ed has no idea how to lie convincingly. He changes his story in the middle of telling it, and Rosenstein knows he’s got the goods.  Or knows who does.

But instead of just torturing Ed to get the information–or threatening his family–or using his drug, which Parker has noticed he doesn’t seem to like using when there’s a woman in the picture–Rosenstein just says he’s going to take Pam into the bedroom until Ed feels like talking. Brock is pained and mortified, as usual (He’s seen this movie before, but what can he do? Poor schmuck’s in love.) Ed, who had not been terribly happy in his marriage to Pam, and has never shown any propensity for violence, suddenly finds the courage to fight for her–but this isn’t a Westlake novel.  It’s a Stark.  Rosenstein, almost as happy hurting men as women, just holds him down and hits him. A bit too hard, a bit too often. Whoops. There goes the last link to the money.

Parker, talking to Rosenstein from a nearby phone booth, says he’ll come in and talk–open the garage door for him. They can work something out. He knows they have no more intention of working anything out than he does. They’re planning an ambush, but they don’t realize they’re dealing with the ultimate ambush predator. He comes in fast and hard with the Pontiac, guns blazing–the fight lasts maybe a minute. And when it’s over, Rosenstein and Brock-en-stern are–well, not dead. But they might have been better off that way.

Parker got Rosenstein in the spinal column with one of his Terriers. He’s crippled, seemingly dying. He spits hatred at Parker–says he just got lucky. Parker’s only retort is to knock Rosenstein out with a pistol butt. He has no time to waste on this–thing.

Brock he has a little more time for–he finds him lying at the bottom of the basement stairs he fell down when Parker shot him, broken in a number of places. And he’s still whining about the damn apartment! But Parker gets him to focus–to explain what happened. And he finds out the money is gone. No way to know who has it. No way to get it back. So it doesn’t exist anymore, as far as he’s concerned. The hunting impulse switches itself off. He’s done.

He starts to leave–wait a minute–Brock and Rosenstein are still alive–neither is in some childlike narcoleptic pharmaceutically-induced state. Both tried to get his money–they drugged him, robbed him, left him in an alleyway, and were going to try and kill him just now. Has Parker totally lost his mind–or his edge?

Not a bit of it. Like I said–he’s done. He was never after Rosenstein and Brock–it was all about getting Uhl and the money. If they had it, and wanted to fight him over it, sure–he’d kill them both, happily. But he never had a working arrangement with them. They had every right to try and get the money. The drugging was unpleasant, but not a major grievance–he settled that score by trashing the apartment and shooting both of them. Madge had it right–Parker and Rosenstein have different outlooks. But honestly, she could have said that about Parker and anybody else on the planet.

He figures the cops are coming–he’s got to get out of there fast, and there’s already been too many shots fired in a quiet neighborhood. He also figures that Pam Saugherty, who he found tied naked to a bed, covered with bruises, in a rather disturbed state of mind, can deal with these two cripples better than he ever could. He can just go upstairs, untie her, and leave–it’s up to her what happens next–it’s her beef. Not his. Not anymore.

Brock can’t understand it–he asks if Parker is leaving them to the law. “I’m doing better than that,” Parker told him. “I’m going to leave you to Saugherty’s wife.” And a fair few books from now, in a time strangely different and far removed from the one he’s currently living in, he’ll have reason to question the wisdom of that decision. But it isn’t a decision at all. It’s just Parker being Parker. If he were easy to understand, we wouldn’t still be reading these books, all these years later. Still trying to figure him out. And probably never succeeding.

And thus ends the paperback era of Parker. Another thing coming to an end, as Parker leaves Gold Medal for good, is the novels being reprinted in a bizarre men’s magazine, with lurid artwork, and laughably stupid new titles. fmo_69_jul_2

That’s probably the least embarrassing retitle of the bunch, and not bad artwork at all. But it’s a shame Robert E. McGinnis never did any more cover art for Parker–he really did seem to get the character in a way none of the others ever did. I said last week that his cover for this book depicted Parker and Joyce Langer, but it’s hard to be sure–is it actually Pam Saugherty? She’s not naked on the cover, but that’s easily enough explained. There’s several traumatized tied-up women in this one. But I still think it’s Joyce.  Anyway, if you want to compare and contrast the various covers, follow this link. Or this one.

I don’t generally love the cover art for the University of Chicago reprints, but I have to give a shout-out to this one, because it correctly identifies the hero of the piece–the long-suffering green Pontiac. Which can finally take a well-deserved rest, once Parker gets back to Claire in New Orleans.

And after I take my own well-deserved rest, I’ll come back with a very different take on murder and mayhem–the next of the Westlake ‘nephew’ books, and while I wouldn’t say it’s the best of the bunch, it got a fantastic paperback cover–eventually. Almost four decades after it was first published in hardcover, with maybe the worst cover art Westlake ever got for any book–and that’s a competitive category.  Remind me again why hardcovers are more prestigious?

And this book got reprinted in a men’s magazine too–THE men’s magazine, in fact. There must have been times when Westlake pondered the irony that after writing near-porn for years, he got into actual porn magazines with stories where the hero doesn’t even have sex. People are funny, you ever notice that?  Westlake did. See you next year.


Filed under Donald Westlake novels, Parker Novels

The Green Eagle Score, Part 2


“Then there was a boom like an explosion.  Not like a rifle shot at all.  A real explosion.  And I looked and there was a bullet coming toward me.  It looked like a train in a tunnel, except it filled it all the way around, there wasn’t any place to squeeze in and let it go by.  And the front was all flat and squashed. I started running away, but I was slow, it turned slow-motion, you know, the way they do.  But the bullet was slow, too, it was just behind me but it couldn’t catch up.  And my father’s eye was still up at the other end, he wouldn’t get out of the way.  I kept hollering at him, but he wouldn’t get out of the way.”

In the course of telling all this, Roger’s voice had lost its usual whine, his expression had calmed, and he had shown briefly who it was he might have been if things had been different.  But now his face twisted back into its usual expression, the whine came into his voice again, and he shrugged negligently, saying, “That’s when I woke up.”

“Not hard to interpret, that dream,” Dr. Godden suggested.

“If I come out of this with my skin,” Godden said, “I’ll consider myself well ahead.  Ellen Fusco told me about you, Parker, but I underestimated you, I didn’t really listen to what she was saying.”  His face clouded.  “I underestimated Roger, too.”

One thing that always amazes me about the Parker novels, no matter how many times I read them, is how much Westlake managed to pack into each and every one–what a concentration of exquisitely detailed little thumbnail portraits and sage, sparely expressed observations of human nature they are.   I’ve said several times already that each of them is a study in comparative psychology–the way different people react differently to the same situation–this one adds an actual psychiatrist to the mix, and finds him just as easy to lay open on Richard Stark’s unforgiving dissection table of the mind as any layperson.   He may understand his confused patients better than they do themselves, but he’s as much a stranger to himself as any of them.  If not more.  A little knowledge of the mind’s workings can be a truly dangerous thing.  All the more when you misuse it.

They are mainly quite compact for novels, but would be little more than short stories if all they did was narrate the events leading up to and away from each heist.  There are always stories within the story, and one such episode that I’d hate to finish this review without mentioning is Parker’s side-trip to get financing for the job at hand, confined entirely to chapter 6, in Part 2 (Stark arranges his books as if they were plays, with four acts and no intermission, because you can’t put them down).

As we’ve already learned, Parker and his colleagues usually get an outside man–quite often a doctor or some other professional–to put up the money they need for equipment, and other sundry expenses–if the job goes well, the financier in question gets double what he put in–if not, he gets nothing.  But either way, he’s got a lot of spare cash he doesn’t want the IRS to know about, but would like to profitably invest.   He doesn’t have to worry about reporting any returns on his investments, either.

Nor does he have to worry about the law coming after him.  It’s part of the unwritten code of the heisting profession that if caught, you never finger the money man. You may need him again once you get out, and it’s bad for business if these guys hear about somebody getting busted for being a backer.   The money man knows nothing about what you’re going to do, probably won’t even read about it in the papers, since he doesn’t live near the site of the job.  He just knows if he gets double his money back or not.  A purely financial transaction–probably be difficult to prosecute, even if one did get caught.

So basically, the Stark heisters get a no-collateral-or-questions-asked loan they only have to pay back if they succeed, and the guy putting up the money has absolutely no say over what they do with the money.  I have no idea if this was a real thing in the real world of real heist-men, in the real 1960’s, or ever–it sounds a bit dubious (why would the money men trust thieves to honor the illegal non-binding agreement, and how did they ever get involved in this business to begin with?).

Westlake is not doing a documentary here.  Maybe it’s just a convention of the genre (though I haven’t seen it elsewhere, so far.)  Maybe he saw it in an old Warner Brothers gangster movie.   He drew on those a lot, and admitted it more than once.   But he invests quite a bit of effort into making us see the logic of this system–and it allows him yet more opportunities for comparative psychology.

The money man for this particular undertaking is, appropriately enough, an undertaker, name of Norman Berridge.  Westlake had done some research about the mortuary business for previous novels (notably The Jugger and The Busy Body), and it’s still coming in handy.

Berridge is middle-aged, out of shape, wanting to do something about that, not actually doing anything about it.  His apprentice is Puerto Rican, because he can’t find any gringos who want to be morticians (this is a long time before Six Feet Under–remember Rico?).  Parker, who he knows as Lynch, shows up in his office, as he has in the past, and says he needs three thousand dollars.

They go to the bank in Berridge’s Toronado–again, the car expresses the personality–middle-aged bourgeois affectation–Berridge knows all the other Toronado drivers are out-of-shape middle-aged men as well, but the impractical car and its made-up-out-of-whole-cloth name still make him feel young.  A man trying to be something he’s not–while Parker remains ‘as clean and cold and empty as the interior of a new coffin.’   Berridge assumes Parker s judging him harshly, the same way Berridge is judging everyone who isn’t like him.  I guess he never saw that scene in Casablanca.

He considered himself an honest and upright and patriotic man, he detested beatniks and peaceniks and other antisocial freaks as much as anyone, and if his income tax statements were annual pieces of remarkably baroque fiction, that was no contradiction at all, but merely another facet of his character, the hardheaded businessman facet. Poorer families tended to pay morticians in cash; cash was untraceable; untraceable income would only be reported by fools; Norman Berridge was nobody’s fool.  If in a safety deposit box in a bank downtown there were wads of wrinkled bills, just as they had come to him from the hands of his clientele that was simply one way of an ordinary person’s defending himself from the encroachments of Big Government.

Don’t worry Norman; you’ll find less stressful ways of doing that in the future.   Just hang in there ’til the ’80’s.

To Parker, Berridge is nothing more than an overly gabby ATM (pardon the anachronism).   He takes the money out of the envelope Berridge hands him, counts it, hands back a twenty because Berridge miscounted, conceals the money in his suit, gets into Devers’ Pontiac (which is nothing but a means of transport to him) and drives away, leaving the superfluous envelope behind in the Toronado.   Berridge feels unsettled and humiliated by the encounter–the shabby pretense of his mediocre life, and his gutless, selective, and mainly vicarious rebellion against the system, is briefly and harshly illuminated, as if laid out on a slab under a fluorescent light in the basement of his mortuary.

The chapter this all occurs in serves no purpose in terms of telling the story–Reader’s Digest would have probably excised it, in the unlikely event it had ever published a Richard Stark novel–it just reminds us that people living the ‘straight’ life can be pretty crooked, even if they don’t have the nerve to be actual crooks.   So anyway, back to the main story, which was just heating up where we last left off.

Parker and his surviving associates, the neophyte Stan Devers and the veteran Philly Webb, now know what happened to their dead compatriots, and more importantly, their money.   Ellen Fusco, whose house they planned the job in, blabbed about the job to Dr. Godden, her analyst–he wanted the money–he recruited some patients–they heisted the heist.  Their choices are to get out of Dodge, aka Monequois, right now, or make one last attempt to recover the loot.   They opt for the latter–be a really short book if they didn’t.

Ellen is a basket case, knowing her father confessor betrayed her, and the actual father of her child is dead because she let herself get conned.   There’s no consoling her, and they don’t particularly want to try, so they tie her up and head for Godden’s office, since they don’t have his home address.  They find it on an envelope at the office–along with the dying Ralph Hochberg, who’s been shot–he’s strangling on his own blood–Parker pushes him on his side, to slow the process–not quite sure why he does that–why not?   It costs him nothing.   He hates it when citizens die on his jobs.   It’s messy.   Bigger headlines.   Maybe that’s why.  No point asking him.

They go to Godden’s house, and he’s holed up there with a rifle, scared out of his wits.   He thinks Parker is Roger St. Cloud, come back to kill him–Parker plays along until Webb can sneak in and disarm him, and now they get the rest of the story.   Roger St. Cloud, the acned over-aged adolescent with daddy issues that Godden persuaded to help out on the job got drunk on all the power he suddenly had in his twitchy hands.

Godden sees it all now, with crystal-clear 20/20 hindsight.  Roger had to kill Marty Fusco and the other two heisters guarding the money, just to know what that would be like.  He had to take all the money for himself, to know that kind of power as well.  When poor pliable Ralph said Roger didn’t really want to do that, he shot him for the sin of not recognizing the godlike being that Roger had now become.   Godden belatedly realizes that giving a paranoid and deeply disturbed young man a rifle and urging him to commit armed robbery may have been a slight miscalculation.

Now that Godden has suddenly reverted back to being a doctor again, Parker figures he can use that–asks him where he thinks Roger would go now–Godden realizes with horror that the next logical step would be for Roger to go home and murder his overbearing father–that would make this Greek tragedy of a heist complete.   Godden, forgetting the situation he’s put himself in, and somehow thinking the Hippocratic Oath still applies to him (maybe a similar sounding form of oath) wants to call the father and warn him–Parker doesn’t want to warn the son, so he ties Godden up, and they’re off again.

Godden called it.  There at the St. Cloud household, Roger is holding off the entire Monequois police force, while the neighbors look on in fascination.   He kills a policeman while they watch.  The father is obviously dead; possibly the mother too; it isn’t relevant to Parker, so we never find out.  What is relevant is that Roger starts tossing the money out the window, to lure onlookers into his sights–and it works–they start grabbing at bills like they’re on a damn game show.   He’s happily potting away at them, killing one after the other, like Zeus hurling thunderbolts (having first disposed of daddy Cronos), when the drama finally winds down–

Parker looked across the street, saw a uniformed cop there with a rifle to his shoulder.   He was being damned finicky under the circumstances, taking his time, being extra sure of his aim.  With all the noise, Parker couldn’t hear the sound of the shot, but he saw the rifle kick in the cop’s hands.  He looked back and saw St. Cloud drop into the people.  “All right,” he said, “Let’s get out of here.”

“Right.”  Webb put the Buick in gear, made a tight U-turn, and they headed away from there.

Devers, disappointment thick in his voice, said “What now?”

“Godden’s office,” Parker said.

Webb leaned forward to glance at him past Devers, then looked straight again, saying, “Why?”

“Because two suitcases went out the window,” Parker said.  “There were three.  He was on foot and two was all he could manage.  The third one is hidden around there somewhere handy.”

“Son of a bitch,” said Webb, and leaned on the accelerator.

It’s like we saw in The Score, if not on the same epic scale–they aren’t happy about all the civic mayhem they’ve indirectly caused–it’s been a major inconvenience–but it’s not something they’re going to spend any time fretting about.   Not their department.   They know what side they’re on–and Devers, though he’s not even processing it now, has joined their side completely.   He’s just thinking about the money too–and he’s the one that finds it, concealed in a trash can outside the office building.  The job hasn’t gone completely sour.   They take the now-deceased Ralph Hochberg (no point letting the law figure things out any faster than need be), and head back to Godden’s house to hide out until the heat  dies down.

Devers brings Ellen and her three year old daughter Pamela there as well, and now they’ve just got to keep things quiet a few days.   Parker coaches Godden on what to say to the police when they come calling, what to tell reporters over the phone when they call to ask questions about his now-infamous patient.  Parker tells Godden he can live if he does exactly as he’s told, and Godden really wants to live.

Ellen isn’t so sure she wants to, but Parker plays maybe the most cold-blooded card we ever see him play in the entire series–he tells her she and her daughter are dead if she doesn’t stay in the house and keep mum until he and his partners are well out of town–Stan isn’t feeling particularly inclined to protect her anymore.   That relationship has run its course.

This can almost get past you the first time you read the book–it’s not something Stark dwells upon at all.   Does Parker mean it?   A three year old can’t testify against you in a court of law.  Pam has no more idea what’s going on than a puppy would, though she’s clearly aware of the fact that everyone is very tense, and she’s keeping very quiet.   Parker never interacts with her at any point in the book.   He has no soft spot for small children.   He doesn’t smile when he looks at them.   He doesn’t try to make friends with them.  They are just young humans. Not useful to him.  Not a threat to him.  Therefore not relevant to him.   Except as leverage.

I don’t believe Richard Stark would ever have put Parker in a situation where he had to harm a child.   Westlake wouldn’t let Stark let Parker do that, even if Stark wanted to.   But they both allow Parker to be in a situation where he has to threaten a child’s life to frighten a young mother into submission.   They both want us to know that if he were in a situation where there was no other alternative if Parker wanted to stay free…..but then again, if she somehow contacted the police, and they were closing in, what good would it do Parker to keep his promise?   It would just guarantee him the death penalty, if caught.   It wouldn’t make any sense.

And could he kill a three year old, even if he absolutely had to?   There’s a scene in an upcoming book that makes me wonder about that.

Ellen knows this about Parker–his pragmatism–she told Godden that he wouldn’t do anything for or to anybody unless it benefited him somehow.   But she also knows she’s put her little girl in a very dangerous situation.   She knows something else–the man most responsible for the situation they’re all in is upstairs, bound hand and foot, helpless.  The man who betrayed her confidence.   The man who pretended to be her doctor.   The man who lied. The man who thinks he can just walk away from all this, like it never happened.

By the time they find Godden with his throat cut, it’s too late–Ellen has taken Pam and fled to her parents (actually leaving an apologetic note!) The law will get her, and then they’ll come looking.   The roadblocks are down.   They make a run for it, Webb going one way, Parker and Devers the other.   They got a decent enough haul.   About 42k per man.   Not much less than they’d have gotten if they’d split the original take six ways.  Parker’s strange luck is still holding.

Ellen told Dr. Godden earlier that she had problems with being a mother–she didn’t feel comfortable in the role, that she was just play-acting at it–but faced with a real threat to Pam’s safety, her identity crisis is at least temporarily resolved–she had to kill Godden for what he did to her–she needed that as much as Parker needed to kill Mal Resnick in the first book–but having done that, she has to get Pam to safety–she can’t gamble on Parker not meaning what he said.

She still feels enough loyalty towards Marty and Stan to refuse to talk to the cops about what happened, and given what she’s been through, they can only lean on her so much–just as well, since her telling them the whole story would involve confessing to premeditated murder.   It’s hard to feel optimistic about her future, but at least she has one.

Parker and Devers head for Albany, a big enough city to disappear in, but on the way they hear Ellen made it to her parents’ house, and Parker knows this wouldn’t be on the news if the police hadn’t already traced her back to Godden’s house, and found Godden’s corpse, and they are driving Godden’s Cadillac.  They ditch it in Saratoga, get the train to Albany, and now it’s time to say au revoir.

Parker is pleased with the way Devers is shaping up–he’s a good recruit for The Profession–somebody he can work with in the future, but he needs seasoning.   Parker tells Stan to look up Handy McKay at his diner in Presque Isle, in Maine. Handy will show him the ropes.  Probably fry him an egg too.

In nothing is Parker more wolf-like than in his attitude towards younger heist-men, when he likes the cut of their jib.  He wants them to get better and better at their jobs–to pass on what he knows to them, help them along, keep them from making too many stupid mistakes that will get them jailed, or dead.   It’s enlightened self-interest–the more good men he can call on for future jobs, the less often he has to work with incompetents (or psychos).   He’s expanding his network.

But he also just seems to enjoy it.   It touches something in him.  Not necessarily something human.  Something that existed long before the first humans.  True, these youngsters will never be like him.   No matter how experienced they get, they’ll still be men.   But he’s willing to overlook that.

The epilogue takes up half a page–Parker goes back to Puerto Rico.   He finds Claire, more or less where he left her.  “You did come back”, she says.   “I always will”, he replies.   And in that moment, he means it.   He’ll be more honest in a much later book.   They make dinner plans.   She asks if they’ll go to the casino afterwards.   You will recall that Claire is always particularly ready for lovemaking after losing fifty bucks or so at the craps tables.  Parker has already done the thing that puts him in the mood.   But he’s learned the value of patience–he can wait a few more hours.   “Yes,” he replies.

Parker doesn’t know it yet, but he’s just pulled his last profitable heist for a good long while.   His opponents in the near future will be of a different order than the paltry likes of Dr. Godden and Roger St. Cloud (or the U.S. Air Force, which proved to be something of a pushover here).   That promise he made to Claire will be increasingly difficult to keep.

And Claire herself is a problem Westlake is going to have to deal with–what’s her place in the series?   She was little more than Penelope to Parker’s payroll snatching Odysseus here, but can she be more?  Should she be?   The next book in the series will address that question directly, and many would say, not too successfully.  But I’m not going there yet.

Since I finished this one up a bit quicker than I thought, I’d like to talk about the covers, which I don’t normally do that much–none of them are all that evocative. McGinnis’ cover for the Gold Medal first edition (which you can see in Part 1 of this review) is lovely to look at, but McGinnis just has Parker in the foreground with a gun, and Claire in the background without a top.

The point being that Parker is focusing on the job at hand, but he’s got Claire in the back of his mind.   And we saw in the book that this is perfectly true, though only briefly expressed, so clearly McGinnis did read at least some of the hundreds of books whose covers he so ably illustrated over the years (and he’s not finished yet).

But none of the illustrators, far as I’m concerned, really capture the essence of the book–they usually focus on the Air Force angle, even though it’s less important than the storyline revolving around Ellen and Dr. Godden.   They use various military regalia to illustrate this is about a base heist, even though only Stan is in uniform during the heist, and only briefly, and it’s a guard’s uniform–none of them impersonates an officer, none of them wears one of those cap things officers wear.  The heist is, paradoxically, too simple in its structure to get across easily.  The artists keep trying to make it more complicated.

Looking at all the covers in order, you see various attempts to convey the story, and none of them succeed terribly well.   The Gold Lion reprint has beautiful artwork–clearly that’s Ellen looking all pensive in the foreground, but is that Parker clutching his arm in the background?   Did Parker’s arm get hurt and we missed it?   Did a car blow up?   Would he really wear that color shirt?   It’s just an assortment of captain’s hats, and saxophones, and firearms, and I guess all it really has to do is catch the eye, but only McGinnis gets a real point across, and it’s a very selective point indeed, because that guy had women on the brain, and no doubt still does.

The novel was also reprinted in that comically awful men’s magazine I referred to in an earlier review–care to guess what they decided to rename it as?


Well, that’s kind of a scene from the book.   For some strange reason, I’m moved to wonder why Stan has dark hair, and Ellen is a blonde, when it’s made very clear in the book they are reprinting word for word that the opposite is true.   I won’t even bother to ask why she’s suddenly got implants.   Doesn’t pay.   But presumably the magazine paid Westlake for the rights.

We’ve reached the end of 1967, and it’s been one hell of a year–arguably Westlake’s best ever, at least if you go by publication dates.   He can’t keep this pace up forever.  Six novels, all of them still in print today (if only electronically in some cases), five of them ranking among his finest work–sorry Grofield, you didn’t make the cut this time.   And a children’s book, lest we forget.   And an Edgar Award, which far as I’m concerned is for a body of work that simply shouldn’t be this voluminous and impressive after only seven years.   Westlake could have retired right then and there, and his reputation would have been made–but his fortune would not.   Miles to go before he sleeps.

But before I put this one to bed, I’ll harken back briefly to Mr. Norman Berridge, heading up in the elevator of his mortuary business, having been informed a Mr. Lynch is here to see him about ‘the annuities.’

Lynch was not, of course, the man’s real name.  One time when he had come with another man, the other one had called him by a different name, which Berridge could no longer be sure he remembered.  Porter, Walker, Archer…something like that.

Yet another little meta-textual reference, but a lot more people would have gotten this one at the time.  It’s 1967, and Parker has entered a new medium–where he will not be called Parker–not for a long long time–not if Westlake is around to stop it.  Walker today, Porter well into the future.   Also Macklin, McClain, Georges, Stone–no Archer.   But would you believe Paula Nelson?

Believe it or not, I’m going to take a few weeks off from book blogging to review the Parker film adaptations.   Some of them, anyway.   Some I may not find the patience to sit through again.   One in particular I’d give my eyeteeth to have on DVD.   But mainly, I just want to briefly forestall the sad sad day when I will have drunk the last of the 1960’s vintage.   I’m already grieving the end of 1967–it was, as the song says, a very good year.   Hey, could Sinatra have played—hmm–maybe the musical version.  Guys and Molls.


Filed under Donald Westlake novels