Tag Archives: Richard Stark

Review: Kahawa, Part 2

“I’ll tell you who I am.” Lew was really very excited.  He said, “It came to me in a revelation, this afternoon.  That sign, this train, that cliff.  I’ve accepted my destiny, Frank.  I’m the hero!”

Frank stared at him. “You’re the what?”

“The hero.  That’s what I was born to be.  And that’s why I can go up on top of those cars and take a couple chances.”  The bastard had the effrontery to pat Frank on the cheek.  “The hero doesn’t get killed,” he explained.

“I am not a hero,” Isaac said, the tension fading from his face.   He sat back, realigned the folders, seemed to sigh through all his body.  “I am not the lone man with a rifle,” he said, looking down at his dark hands on the pale folders, “who slips across the border and hunts down the tyrant.  To avenge his–his family.”

“Isaac,” Balim said softly, leaning forward as though he might touch Isaac’s hand.

“I am a bureaucrat,” Isaac said, not looking up.  “I am a paper shuffler.”

“Isaac, you are a man.  Every man has his purpose.”

Now Isaac did look up.  The eyes in his dark face were always a bit red around the pupils, but now they were more so.  “Every sack of coffee that is stolen from Amin,” he said, “shortens his time.  The more coffee is stolen and smuggled out of the country, the sooner he’ll run out of money to keep his Nubians drunk and himself in new medals.  I hope the train carries every coffee bean from the new crop.”

“May God hear your words,” Balim said, gently smiling.

Africa specializes in comic horrors, or horrific comedy. Burlesque and tragedy go hand in claw, never more so than in the case of the comic-opera rulers of some recently independent African nations, who wave cartoon fists that draw real blood. Grotesques like Uganda’s Idi Amin, who kept the heads of murdered enemies in a freezer so he could go on yelling at them indefinitely about their disloyalty, and Jean-Bedel Bokassa of the Central African Empire (an empire about the size of a Manila envelope), who beat a group of children to death for voicing their dislike of the school uniforms he’d designed–these have been if not the representative then the most noticeable figures of the new Africa. For every statesman like Jomo Kenyatta or Julius Nyerere, forming a real nation from the steaming clay of hasty independence, there have been a dozen buffoons with fangs.

Donald E. Westlake, reviewing  The Laughing Cry, An African Cock and Bull Story, by Henri Lopès, New York Times, 5/3/87.

Kahawa had many good, sometimes outright glowing notices, from critics whose opinions would have mattered to Westlake, most notably John Leonard (see Part 1 of this review for the link).  But it seems like even those who said the book was a great read, in spite of its often grim subject material, still felt obliged to nitpick it to hell.

The book actually had two reviews in the Times, the first one in Leonard’s Books of the Times column in March of 1982, right after it came out–but strictly speaking, the official Times review appeared in May, written by Randy Hogan, a freelance writer and editor who, like Leonard, used the rather odd literary term ‘hugger-mugger’ to describe it, and spoke dismissively of Westlake’s past work, referring to him as “the author of such slight, amusing caper novels as ‘The Hot Rock,’ ‘The Spy in the Ointment’ and ‘Bank Shot.’ “

The very works that had made Westlake a bankable name in publishing had also made him a writer many were disinclined to take seriously, even when he was being deadly serious.  He was caught in a prison of his own devising, like many a writer before and since, and you might say Kahawa, a hybrid of the heist and ‘international intrigue’ genres, was his latest breakout.   The critics assigned to review him were not always appreciative of these escape attempts.  They tended to apply much stricter standards than they would to a Parker or Dortmunder novel.

Leonard merely disagreed with Westlake over the proper use of ‘disinterested’, but Hogan took issue with his math, scoffing that an offhand reference to a stolen truck (a theft that occurs before the events of this novel) as containing coffee worth 85,000 British pounds would mean that the truck would have to carry 42 tons.  Leaving aside the fact that there are trucks out there that can handle that much cargo, Mr. Hogan wasn’t paying attention–he assumed a pound of coffee would only be worth one pound sterling, but he’s writing in 1982.  The story is set in 1977.

It’s been explained in the book that in 1977, failures of the coffee crop in strategic places like Brazil have sent the price of coffee to historic highs.  A pound of coffee cost as much as $3.34 on the international market in 1977.  A British pound was worth about $1.75 that year.  So coffee seems to have cost over twice what Hogan estimated, and there’s plenty of trucks that can carry  20 tons of cargo.  Well, nobody cares much if you don’t research a freelance book review carefully (as opposed to a 475 page novel).  In all fairness, Hogan didn’t have the internet, or probably time to hit the library (as Westlake clearly had), but he had the bloody book right in front of him.

His review inspired yet another cheap shot, where an American scholar of Swahili who’d read Hogan’s review (and clearly not the book itself) felt compelled to write a letter to the Times to take issue with a passage quoted in it, which told readers that great African lingua franca had been written mainly in the European alphabet (as opposed to the Arabic) since the sixteenth century.  Which best as I can tell is factually true, and Westlake never said nobody was writing it in the Arabic alphabet.   He made his weariness with both Hogan and the Swahili prof. (and really, with anybody who nitpicks a book without carefully reading it first) clear in this letter to the editor.

Seems like most of the mail he received from his longtime readers was about how appalled they were by the explicit sex scenes in the book (which in their entirety wouldn’t fill one chapter in this 475 page epic).  The book is written as entertainment, no doubt, loads of violence to go with the sex, but it also had an underlying message to it, as I would say most of his novels do, albeit less cunningly camouflaged this time–people still managed to drive right past it.

What was it Upton Sinclair said, after The Jungle came out, and triggered not sympathy for the oppressed workers but revulsion over the unsanitary practices of the meat-packing industry?  “I aimed at the nation’s heart, and hit its stomach.”  Perusing shocked letters from longtime readers, Westlake must have felt like he’d hit its gonads instead.  This wasn’t what people expected from him.

But a more serious problem might have been that the book, in spite of having multiple white protagonists, strays off repeatedly into the minds of the black and Asian characters, who have their own stories and agendas.  Rather like The Black Ice Score, his first African-oriented adventure (though set in New York), probably the least loved of the Parker novels–though as I pointed out when reviewing it, it’s got all the elements of the best-loved books in that series.  Except that it spends a lot of time in the heads of non-white people, as does Kahawa.

As opposed to the now much better known (though probably not better selling) novel about Amin’s Uganda, The Last King of Scotland, by Giles Foden, which spends the entire narrative in the head of a somewhat irritating young Scottish doctor, shows us Amin and Uganda entirely through his eyes.  I can’t fairly critique that book, or compare it to Kahawa, because I just skimmed through it.   Based on that quick scan-through, I think it’s got valid insights to convey, but I like it a lot less than Kahawa.  More than this I can not say, because Foden’s style doesn’t appeal to me, and I’ve got a reading list that would stretch to the moon and back. It’s more of a critic’s book, that scored some small but prestigious literary prizes.  Never was a best-seller in any edition, best as I can tell.

But look which book got the film adaptation, complete with bravura Oscar-winning performance from Forest Whitaker–because, I would argue, it stays focused on that one equivocating white western POV–the tourist approach–fly on the wall–Dante in hell–or if you prefer, Waverly in Scotland (google it).  The approach has its virtues.  And its limitations.   Sometimes people feel uncomfortable getting too far away from their own narrow perspectives.  But isn’t that precisely where fiction is supposed to take us?

And what the rest of this review will be about is looking at the myriad of perspectives that make up this story, the people who make this book come alive, make it far more than just some tropical potboiler about treasure and trains.  Though I will say, in spite of the story Les Alexander brought Westlake about a supposedly real train robbery in Uganda, I strongly suspect this book could trace part of its complex lineage to Dark of the Sun. Probably more the movie than the 1965 novel they adapted it from.   Check it out sometime, but in the meantime, let’s get down to business.

Who are the characters who really matter in this book?  We’ve already met mercenary Lew Brady and bush pilot Ellen Gillespie, the main romantic coupling here (though they spend most of the book apart, having sex with other people), and I think I went into enough detail about them last time.  They’re our point of entry to this world, the by no means naive or ‘typical’ Americans, who come to Africa more or less on a whim, to put their skills to work, have an adventure, and of course it’s all so much more complicated and dangerous than they could ever have imagined.   Fascinating, this world they’ve entered, and yet impossible to ever fully take in, and the same could be said of their employer–

Mayar Balim

Please don’t misunderstand me, Mr. Balim,” Obuong said, “I am not myself anti-Asian.  Some of my best friends in Nairobi are Asian.”

Balim nodded, accepting these bona fides.

“But I don’t think it’s unfair to say, “Obuong went on, “that it is well known that patriotism is not an emotion known to Asians.  Their interests–perfectly legitimate interests–lie elsewhere.  Money, merchandising.   Art.  Learning.  At times, religion.  And they are very good family people.

“Patriotism,” Balim gently pointed out, “is the love of one’s country.  Unrequited love of one’s country is a passion difficult to maintain.”

Balim is in many ways the calm center of this story, the eye in the storm–the train heist is being organized by him and his employees, though he himself won’t participate directly, organizing from behind the scenes.  Exiled from Uganda after the rise of Amin, he has struggled to rebuild his family fortunes in Kenya, and thus agrees (with some reservations) to make a deal with the nefarious Baron Chase.   But money is not all he cares about.   His primary interest is people.   He would agree strongly with Alexander Pope (and Donald Westlake) that the proper study of mankind is man.

He quietly observes those around him, noting their strengths and weaknesses, deciding how each might serve him, but not in a cold dispassionate manner at all–he cares.   He wants them to be happy, to do well, to find their purpose.  He not only knows who he is, he knows his place in the scheme of things, and accepts it, but he has moments of doubt and great fear, as when his charming scapegrace of a son, who does not yet know his place, and doubts he can ever find one in Africa, insists on going along with the others on the coffee heist.  In his son’s absence, a fearful Balim tells himself he’ll accede to his son’s wish to go to London, if only he returns alive.

He doubts that his own place in Africa will endure–as the Jews were banished from post-reconquista Spain, the Asians are being expelled from post-colonial Africa, envied and distrusted by the black majority.  But as he waits to learn the fate of his criminal enterprise (and his only child), he is surprised to learn that he may have friends in high places, or at the very least, well-wishers.  Because the wiser heads among any post-colonial population must recognize that the key to long-term national success in our modern world is not purity, but diversity.   Every man has his purpose.

Balim said, “Mr Obuong, can it be that you are friendly in spirit toward me?”

Obuong’s smile almost became a laugh, but then was replaced by earnestness.  “Your former land,” he said, “is a very unhappy one.  If the same sort of thing were to happen here, I personally would live in fear all the minutes of my life.  I would be exposed because of my governmental position, and my success, and my education.  A contented middle-class Kenya is necessary to my peace of mind.”

Admiringly, Balim said, “Very few people, of any rank or color, have thought it through quite that clearly.”

“Whatever my personal opinions may be,” Oblong said, “and I will admit to you privately that I have my ambivalences, nevertheless I know that a Kenyan middle class must be heterogeneous.  We need the Asian shopkeepers; we need the white farmers; we even need the Arabs from the coast.”

Smiling, Balim said, “Even?”

So as Balim’s part of the story concludes, we may hope that his love for his country may not remain unrequited forever, and that he can contribute to the long-term prosperity and stability of Kenya, an enterprise that is, oddly enough, served rather well by the theft of coffee from Idi Amin.   Something about the balance of trade.   Men like Balim may dabble in crime, but somehow it always turns into something respectable along the way.   And none among his confederates is more worthy of respect than–

Isaac Otera:

At the very first bureaucratic foot-drag, Isaac forgot to be scared.  He almost forgot who he really was, and what this charade was all about, because what came flooding into the forefront of his mind was his normal technique for dealing with minor-league officiousness, clerical obstructionism, and the arrogance of petty authority.  When the motor-pool sergeant, a sloppy man in a sloppy uniform, said indignantly, “We can’t break into our schedule to service a truck for you now, you should have phoned yesterday,” Isaac’s immediate answer was to point to the phone on the sergeant’s desk and say, “Put me through to the commanding officer.”

Isaac Otera is Balim’s most valued employee, his secret weapon you might say; a master bureaucrat, who knows how to navigate the treacherous byways of African obstructionism.  He is also a devout Christian, who came to Kenya from Uganda, after his entire family was butchered by Amin’s soldiers, who were looking for him.   He can never fully forgive himself for this, nor can he forget that his fellow Ugandans of all faiths are still trapped in there with that grinning monster.

And so this most honest of men wishes with all his heart to be part of this great coffee heist, to ‘put one in Idi Amin’s eye’, because it’s the only real contribution he can make to shortening Amin’s reign–without the hard currency he gets from coffee sales, Amin would have already fallen from power.   He’ll be risking his life, as well as his immortal soul, and he’s hardly a man of action, but he’s ready to take the risk, play the part.  He doesn’t kid himself about who he is, but he gambles that he can be more.

In the above scene, he’s posing as a Ugandan officer, laying the groundwork to requisition Amin’s own military trucks to shuttle the coffee from the hijacked train to waiting rafts at the shore of Lake Victoria, utilizing official paperwork he himself has flawlessly forged.

He meets an old friend at the depot, who recognizes him, knows of his exile, and he somehow manages to bluff his way through, and the friend says nothing to anyone about it–perhaps out of loyalty, but the thing about a totalitarian country is, people tend to learn it’s a bad idea to attract too much attention to yourself–if Isaac’s friend reported him, who’s to say he wouldn’t end up in the cell next to him?

Isaac is thrilled to realize that he’s more of a man of action than he’d ever thought possible, and the heist could not possibly have succeeded without him, but he has his limits.   He’s carrying a revolver in the Sam Browne belt that came with his uniform.  The gun has no cartridges in it.  He’ll steal in a good cause, but he won’t kill.  The same can hardly be said of–

Baron Chase:

Chase cradled the phone and sat a moment longer in bed, brooding at the mirrored bathroom door, in which he could see reflected the room’s main window.  It wasn’t Sir Denis’s keenness, the likelihood of his discovering their plot, that was agitating Emil Grossbarger so much; no, not at all.  Chase saw through that.  The fact was, Emil Grossbarger liked Sir Denis Lambsmith, he considered himself Sir Denis Lambsmith’s friend, he was trying to protect his friend, ease his friend out of the area of danger.

Who would do that for me?

In Chase’s world the evidences of friendship were so few that he almost never had to remember the existence of such a thing.  To have it flaunted in his face here and now, under these circumstances, involving two such creatures as Grossbarger and Lambsmith, was galling, insupportable.  Who would concern himself for Baron Chase in that way?

They use me, that’s all. Even Amin doesn’t really like me.

If Amin is the over-looming evil presence in this story, rarely playing an active role, but always somehow felt in the distance, Baron Chase is the active villain, the conniver, the double-dealer, Saruman to Amin’s Sauron.  Amin is destined to live a regrettably long life, even after his impending downfall, dying in Saudi Arabia at 78 (Westlake only made it to 75).  There is no justice in this world, unless we make it ourselves, and that in a sense is the point of Baron Chase in this story.   Westlake can’t properly punish Amin, who falls outside the storyteller’s jurisdiction, but he can test his own creation, see if he merits survival–but what part of Westlake is administering this test?  And by what standards?

I’ve already mentioned that I think this is in certain key respects the second novel by Timothy J. Culver, but there’s also quite a lot of Richard Stark in it.   Which seems strange to say, when it’s so much about heroism of all kinds, people doing things that make no sense from a purely pragmatic POV.  Stark tends to look askance on heroism of any kind.   In his stories, heroes just get people killed.

But think about it–it’s a heist story, and it’s not a comedy.  Who else would take charge of those parts of the novel dealing with a beautifully planned brilliantly executed armed robbery?  Who but Stark?  And who else would have come up with a character like Baron Chase?  Or go out of his way to mention a military truck called the Leyland Terrier?

Not the first international man of mendacity going by that name that Stark had given us.   This Baron is Canadian, and Baron is his given name, not a title derived from an aristocratic background. But he is, self-evidently, a reworking of Baron from The Handle.   There’s even a brief acknowledgement of this in the book–Chase is thinking of finding himself a quiet sunny little island in the Caribbean after his scheme is completed (maybe Anguilla?), but he’s also interested in trying New Orleans sometime–a town the Baron from The Handle knew well.

He’s been a gun for hire for some time now, and the work pays well, but not well enough to retire comfortably on.  He can only rise so far in Amin’s Uganda, because Amin will never fully trust a white man (or any man, really, and only a fool would ever trust a  man like Chase).   So he comes up with this coffee caper, pitches it to Balim at one end, Grossbarger at the other, tying all the players together, but never for one moment intending to play it straight with any of them.   If this were the story of the Scorpion and the Frog, you know damned well which role he’d play.

He’s another of Westlake’s beast men–we’re told his smile is like that of a wolf, and roaming the streets of London, looking for a bit of rough trade (boys or girls, what’s the difference?), he may kill for no reason other than minor irritation.  But he’s no Parker.  He’s all too human under that lupine exterior.   He’s eaten up inside with malice, will take revenge at the least slight, and makes murder the answer to everything.  He’s not a wolf in the form of a man, but rather a man whose soul has been twisted into a grotesque parody of a wolf’s.

As seen above, he experiences a moment of pure rage and jealousy, when he realizes that even a rogue like Grossbarger, a former Nazi officer, might seek to shield a friend from danger–but never him.  Nobody in this world gives a damn about him, and it never occurs to him to ask why that might be.   Parker just wouldn’t give a damn, either way.  And yet, Parker would never try to cheat a partner out of his share, as Chase fully intends to do with Balim & Co.   Parker inspires loyalty without ever seeking it.  Those who most desire the solace and safety of friendship are often those least deserving of it.

Westlake must have often wondered how Parker would have fared in a totalitarian society, whether his formidable instincts for self-preservation would be adequate in a world where absolutely no one can be trusted, absolutely no one is safe.  Chase is no Parker, as I’ve said, but he is a chillingly efficient operator, all the same.   As the heist begins, but before Chase can make his exit, Amin, sensing he’s up to something, without knowing quite what, orders him detained for ‘The VIP Treatment’–meaning that he’ll be tortured to death, and if he chooses to talk, fine–if not, also fine.

Chase, always prepared for treachery (since treachery is all he knows), improvises his way through, killing his captors, making his way out of Uganda by fits and starts, experiencing one setback after another, but he proves again and again that it’s deadly to underestimate him.  He kills Amin’s men when they try to stop him, and he kills a good Samaritan who picks him up on the road just as coldly, so he can take the man’s vehicle.  He very nearly kills Balim’s son when he gets to the sight of the train robbery, leaving him for dead by the tracks.  It’s all the same to him.  Life is a game for one, and you play to win.  He can’t see any other way.

But he’s not as young as he used to be, and he was never quite as smart as he wanted to think.  Each little misstep costs him a bit more, pushes him closer to his limits.   He’s taken one hell of a beating by the time he makes it to Kenya.  And as he lies there under a tree, catching his breath, congratulating himself on his cunning and enterprise, the fox triumphant at last–he lets his guard down, just once.  You don’t get to do that when Richard Stark has anything to do with the story.   And who sees to Baron’s just deserts?

‘Charlie’:

There are spirits in the air, and in the ground, and inside trees, who make it their business to call human beings to their deaths.  This is why, when a male child is born in many African tribes, he is not initially given his true name, but is lent a temporary false appellation to confuse the spirits of death.  Should the child survive his first few years–and most do not, despite this subterfuge–he is given his permanent name.

But even this is not his real name.  That he selects for himself at puberty, and will probably never tell anyone.  Thus the African travels under an alias at all times, secure in the knowledge that nobody knows who he really is.

A passage very much in the Westlake tradition, but I strongly suspect he let his own obsession with identity skew his research into the tribes of this region.   I can find no evidence that Charlie’s tribe, the Kikuyu, had any such practice (though it may well have existed)–male children are typically named after older male relatives, to maintain family continuity.  He probably came across a mention of it somewhere, and was so charmed by the concept, he couldn’t resist using it here.  Neither could Toni Morrison, apparently.  Be surprising if Westlake hadn’t read Song of Solomon by that time.

(It should go without saying that none of the nitpicking western critics who reviewed this book when it came out ever thought to question this assertion about the Kikuyu, but I’ll say it anyway).

Nonetheless, reading over various sources, I definitely got the sense that he’d done considerable research into the Kikuyu, and liked them very much.  He expresses great admiration, in the novel and elsewhere, for Jomo Kenyatta, who was a Kikuyu, and who, when he became President of Kenya, chose nation over tribe (notwithstanding, tribalism remains to this day a powerful force in Kenya and most of the rest of Africa).  Charlie is hardly a character your average Kikuyu would aspire to be; a lowly employee of an Asian merchant, but he casts quite a long shadow over this book.  He’s a trickster and a scoundrel, but  Westlake’s affection for that kind of character is well-established by this time.

Charlie holds his employer Mr. Balim in something approaching spiritual reverence–and having learned that Balim is on the verge of despair, believing Baron Chase to have killed his only son, he broods quietly, and then advances on the resting Baron, concealing a deadly toy–a knife with a long almost paper-thin flexible blade, that can kill quietly, leaving no easily discernible trace.  Chase, like most people who see Charlie, does not understand the depths of his character, and too late realizes that there are things you can’t buy or cheat your way out of.

(It’s also Charlie who realizes that a poor man they meet along the tracks in Uganda may be more than he seems, but his insights are always rendered less useful by his overweening self-interest–he’s not really a team-player.  He thinks the team is playing for him).

Balim has a way of inspiring great loyalty in those who work for him, but Charlie is an extreme case, viewing him with an almost religious reverence, perhaps the only Non-Kikuyu he could be said to love.  But he does not extend this feeling to Balim’s other employees, such as Lew and Frank.

Lew he seriously considers killing, because Lew makes an example of him during a self-defense class (Charlie is ad-libbing humorous asides when translating Lew’s instructions).   His pride is badly hurt.   But he wouldn’t come at Lew directly–he’d hire a good witch doctor to do the job.  His belief in witch doctors is perhaps no more superstitious than Lew’s bizarre conviction that since he’s the hero, he can’t be killed (this doesn’t even make sense in mythic terms).

His relationship with Frank is more familiar, but no more friendly.   Frank routinely has to threaten to break Charlie’s neck just to get him to stop playing pranks on him (like hiding his anti-malaria drugs).   Charlie, in return, has granted Frank (who, like all non-Kikuyus, he considers less than fully human) a special distinction.

Among the animals, the only one so far honored with a name by Charlie was Frank.  Charlie had named him Mguu, and it gave him secret pleasure every time he saw the man to know that he alone knew this was Mguu.  The name was from the Swahili–Mguu was not worth a name from Charlie’s native Kikuyu dialect–and it means “foot.”  It seemed to Charlie that foot expressed Mguu very well; his stamping around like an elephant, his roaring, his rushing into situations without thought or preparation.  Also, Charlie had seen in the cinema cartons about a blind white man named Mr. Magoo, and this seemed to add a proper dimension; Mguu, the blind foot.

And this might be a good point to consider the strengths, the weaknesses, the oddities (and indeed, the blindnesses)  of–

Frank Lanigan:

Slogging forward, workmanlike, Frank said, “How many times can you pop me with that little thing?  I’ll still take your fucking head off.”  Behind him, Lew had also started forward, moving to Frank’s right.  Isaac watched, open-mouthed.  He wanted to yell, to make them stop, but he couldn’t think what the words should be.  And Chase seemed just as astonished.  “Frank!” he shouted.  “Don’t make me do it!” But Frank just walked forward, at the end reaching out for Chase’s head.

Which was when Chase reversed the gun and tried to use the butt as a club.  But Frank held his forearm, twisted the gun out of his hand, and tossed it dismissively to Lew.  Then he started hitting.

It’s not really made clear what nationality Frank was, originally.  Some corner of the English-speaking world–America, Canada, Australia, perhaps the UK, or Ireland (the name is Irish).   Wherever he hails from, it stopped mattering to him a long time ago.  He’s just a white mercenary who lives and works in Africa (or anywhere else the money’s good), and has to keep reminding everyone around him that he’s not someone you want to get on the wrong side of.  And he hasn’t much of a right side to get on, if you know what I mean.

He’s as ruthless as Chase, but he has what Chase lacks–loyalty.  He gives you his word, he keeps it.  Subterfuge is not in his skill set.  Everything’s on the surface.  He meets Lew and Ellen at the airport, and he starts right in making passes at her, which she’s originally unaffected by, but she warms to him over time (particularly as she becomes conscious of Lew’s infidelity).

He has one interest you might deem intellectual–he’s fascinated by history, just like his creator.  Having temporarily accepted Ellen’s lack of interest in his lewd propositions, he takes her on a trip to a remote village along the lake, where Balim is constructing a hotel, and tells her all about how this was going to be a major town, but due to a quirk of fate, was relegated to a minor smuggling enclave.  She still thinks he’s an immature lout (because he is), but is forced to acknowledge he has unsuspected depths.

Then the rainy season hits, Lew and Ellen’s romance temporarily founders, and he finds his opening at last.  So to speak.

She pressed her fingernail into his flesh between the third and fourth ribs, just under the nipple.  “If Lew ever hears about this,” she said, bearing down, meaning every word of it, “If Lew so much as ever suspects, I’ll put the knife in right there.  I will, Frank.

Frank chuckled, trying to pretend the fingernail didn’t hurt.  “Lew would do it first, honey,” he said.  “Don’t you worry, old Frank has no death wish.”

She relaxed the pressure but didn’t yet move her hand.  “Just so you understand.”

“I read you, loud and clear.”

She started then to climb off him, but he put his hands on her waist, pulling her down to sit on his stomach.  She could feel him rising again against her buttocks.  He said, “Don’t go, I like you there.”

So did she, goddammit.   She was angry, she was bad-tempered, she was rain-obsessed, she was driven mad by inactivity, but at the same time she did like those hammy hands on her waist, she liked the nudge of that hard cock against her cheek.

He was something different from Lew, he was blunter and more stupid and less sensitive, but there were moments when crudity had its own charm.  Almost against her will, she could feel herself softening to complement his hardness, she could feel the juices begin to flow.

Oh Mguu.  You’ve done it again.

And I like their relationship much more than the one she’s got with Lew.  Just as I like Lew’s with Amarda.   I found myself wishing, yet again, that Westlake hadn’t gone the obvious route, and reunited the two lovers at the end (after Lew has screwed still another beautiful woman, in about the most unlikely circumstances imaginable).

I think one of the strengths of this book is also one of its failings–it has too many fascinating protagonists, a wide variety of heroes (only one of whom thinks of himself as such), and it often loses its way navigating back and forth between them.  There’s a whole tragic subplot involving Sir Denis Lambsmith of the Coffee Board, and a lovely African courtesan in Amin’s employ, and I rather wish Westlake had taken the time devoted to that and given us more of the elder and younger Balims, of Charlie and Isaac, of Frank and Ellen.   It’s one of his longest novels, and it seems painfully short, given all the material it has to cover.

The heist itself is fascinating–Westlake had no idea how (or even if) the heist that he’d been told about, that sparked his interest in doing this book, had been executed.  He just checked out the terrain, did the reading, and figured out a rather brilliant plan, that could obviously go wrong in a million ways, and we see a fair few of them.  But the point, to Westlake, is to belatedly give Amin one in the eye.  One chapter concludes with a frustrated Amin, faced with the impossible, throwing an epic temper tantrum over his lost train of coffee.  Westlake only hoped it had happened in real life.

He spends a lot of time with Amin, reminding us that this seemingly affable fellow, who inspired so much interest at the time from the rest of the world, was a cool calculating killer, a man who survived one assassination attempt after another, as if he truly had a charmed life.  Champion athlete, brave soldier–somebody who had the potential for greatness, and who chose instead to be a monster, because he could not see past his own relentless appetites.  Buffoons with fangs, Westlake calls these men.  We’d best hope we here in America, protected by our laws and traditions, never get to see the fangs of our own buffoons.   You know exactly who I mean.

I feel dissatisfied with this review, and I had a feeling that I would going in.  It’s a gripping, complex, wide-ranging story, that is not as well-balanced as it might be–maybe it got away from Westlake a bit, as the review has gotten away from me.  But I’m closing in on six thousand words, and I better wrap it up.   We can cover all the stuff I missed in the comments section.   Well, maybe not all of it.  That would be very time-consuming.

Is this a serious work or a humorous one?   One must often ask this when reading Westlake, but the answer is rarely clear.  Kahawa has elements of both tragedy and comedy, farce and political commentary, deep compassion for the downtrodden of the earth mingled with cynicism about the wealthy and powerful, and more interesting poignant funny characters than you can shake a stick at.  And a bit unusually for him, heroism counterpointed with villainy, but the real hero isn’t necessarily the one you’d expect to fill that role at any given moment.

What other writer does this?   I can think of one that Westlake found numerous occasions to show his admiration for, and I believe his influence is particularly strong here, even though the setting is not one that author would ever have employed.  And the best thing ever written about that vastly more famous novelist just happens to describe Donald E. Westlake, and Kahawa, nearly as well, and that’s how I’ll conclude this–with the final paragraph of George Orwell’s finest literary essay.

When one reads any strongly individual piece of writing, one has the impression of seeing a face somewhere behind the page. It is not necessarily the actual face of the writer. I feel this very strongly with Swift, with Defoe, with Fielding, Stendhal, Thackeray, Flaubert, though in several cases I do not know what these people looked like and do not want to know. What one sees is the face that the writer ought to have. Well, in the case of Dickens I see a face that is not quite the face of Dickens’s photographs, though it resembles it. It is the face of a man of about forty, with a small beard and a high colour. He is laughing, with a touch of anger in his laughter, but no triumph, no malignity. It is the face of a man who is always fighting against something, but who fights in the open and is not frightened, the face of a man who is generously angry — in other words, of a nineteenth-century liberal, a free intelligence, a type hated with equal hatred by all the smelly little orthodoxies which are now contending for our souls.

And all these years later, they still are.

Anyone care for a song?

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Filed under Donald Westlake novels, Kahawa, Uncategorized

Review: Jimmy The Kid, Part 2

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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–

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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.

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

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.

Uh-oh.

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.

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

Review: Butcher’s Moon, Part 3

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This hatred is one side of the rather equivocal attitude the Greek mythical tradition has toward the figure of the wolf.  On the one hand, the wolf, as Richard Buxton suggests, “stands for one who by his behavior has set himself beyond humanity.”  This is particularly true of the “lone wolf,” a figure isolated from human and lupine community alike.  Connected to this, of course, is the idea, embodied by Odysseus’s grandfather, of cunning criminality.  In Pythian 2, Pindar emphasizes this cunning in a passage that resonates deeply with the conception of justice for which Polemarchus advocates: “May I love my friend: but against my enemy I shall make a secret attack, like a wolf, treading now here now there on my crooked paths.”  This dimension of the lupine character is what drives Polemarchus to recognize the limits of his own position.  On the the other hand, however, because of its cooperative nature, its social life together with others in a pack, and its practices of collaborative hunting and of the equitable sharing of quarry, the wolf also stood in the Greek mythological tradition as a symbol of community and even as an analogue for human social life.

From Plato’s Animals, by Jeremy Bell and Michael Naas

Richard Stark has created a large reputation (including screen credits) with his novels about Parker, the professional thief and killer-if-necessary.  And he does these books very well, even if a few in the series strain credulity.  One such was “Slayground” (1971), in which Parker takes on a whole police force in an amusement park shootout and makes his getaway.

But things improve in the latest Parker, BUTCHER’S MOON (Random House, $4.95).  It has a tie-in with “Slayground”: in the earlier book, Parker had left some money hidden in the amusement park.  In “Butcher’s Moon” he goes back to retrieve it after a job has gone sour.  To get the money back the hero must take on a Mafia gang, a crooked cop, and, in addition, exact his own revenge.  So he gets a few recruits, robs the mob blind, and finally wipes out all the bad guys.

Parker the super-tough, Parker the super-suspicious, Parker the super-lethal, Parker the super-ingenious.  So it’s all nonsense.  But what is not nonsense is Stark’s admirably controlled writing–as tough and spare as Parker himself is.  Stark deals only with the criminal subculture.  His is an unsentimental world and a fatalistic one.  Life means absolutely nothing.  Men are governed only by greed, power, or lust.  There is no such thing as honesty, and everybody, everything, is to be distrusted.  Parker himself is a curiously vague figure.  Stark is not much on characterization.  But the world in which Parker prowls is made very real thanks to Stark’s considerable gifts as a writer and storyteller.

Curiously, Parker is not an anti-hero.  He is bigger than life; nobody was ever like him, or ever will be.

Newgate Callendar (aka Harold C. Schonberg), Criminals at Large, New York Times Book Review, 9/15/74

Calesian moved over to the window, looked out at the dark city under the moonless sky.  The spotted streetlights, aping the stars, emphasized the darkness rather than cutting it.  Calesian sensed Parker out there somewhere, scurrying in the dark with his army.

He looked up at the sky.  Why the hell wasn’t there a moon, for Christ’s sake?  The air would be hot just the other side of the window glass, but the air conditioning was on in here, and he shivered slightly from the coolness of it.  And the unrelieved darkness.  A hell of a night to die, he thought.

That Times review up above is a true rarity, brief though it be (that’s the full text; the rest is devoted to other books).  Other than Westlake’s longtime supporter Anthony Boucher, few Times critics ever paid much attention to him until much later, when he was seen as more of a senior statesman of the comic caper, or whatever.   When he got out of his appointed niche, as in Up Your Banners, the Times could get downright savage.

This piece is actually from the very book review section that Westlake had the protagonist of Adios Scheherazade lament he could never get into with his pathetic pornos (even though they were still showing pictures of bare-breasted African women), and measured as its praise might be, I’d assume Westlake savored the small symbolic victory. Made it ma, top of the world!

‘Newgate Callendar’ was not primarily known as a literary critic–he was just kibbitzing here–doing a minor column for the book review section called Criminals at Large, a brief semi-regular overview of recent crime/suspense novels.  He’d previously reviewed two of the earlier Random House Parkers there (none of the paperbacks).  His regular gig was music critic, for which he won a Pulitzer in 1971.

He makes a few regrettable errors here (Parker is not shooting it out with ‘a whole police force’ in Slayground), but he gave Stark and Westlake both a number of good reviews over the years.  I would assume he knew they were one and the same when he wrote this, being no stranger to pseudonyms himself, but it’s hard to tell, isn’t it?

“So it’s all nonsense.”  Because it couldn’t happen that way in reality?  Because the characters are bigger than life?  Because it’s full of grand flourishes, overblown bloody denouements?  So by that standard, Mr. Callendar, wouldn’t pretty much every opera you ever reviewed be far worse nonsense?   Ah well, let it lie.   He had it right about how good a writer Richard Stark was.  About nobody ever being like Parker in reality–I’d agree–if we’re talking human beings.  Are we, necessarily?

I was hoping to unearth some serious in-depth critiques of Butcher’s Moon from around the time it was published, and to that end, I obtained an old copy of The Armchair Detective (Volume 7, #4), ‘A Quarterly Journal Devoted to the Appreciation of Mystery, Detective, and Suspense Fiction.’  An online search indicated I might find an article on the book there.  That’s some scary search engine, because what it was referring to was two nigh-microscopic missives; one from the letters page–fan mail from none other than Joe Gores, just starting to make a name for himself in the genre, and who had, of course, just recently published a novel that was a planned cross-over with Plunder Squad.

A hell of a fine issue of TAD this time, by the way, with the Westlake (Coe), de la Torre, and Hammett pieces well worth the price of admission just by themselves.  Have you seen the latest Westlake/Stark, by the way, just out from Random House?  Butcher’s Moon, at 300 plus pages?  Just a fantastic boomer of a book, one I think must claim very serious consideration for this year’s Edgar.  Thick, meaty, and not an ounce of fat on it.  To my mind, as close to a modern Red Harvest as we are likely to get.

Heartfelt and perceptive, but hardly an objective scholarly third party source, nor was a capsule review by TAD‘s dedicated and super-knowledgeable editor, Allen J. Hubin, about as long as Gores’ letter, and even more fanboy-esque.  The gist of it is ‘great fun, nothing to be taken seriously.’   And in case you were wondering, Butcher’s Moon wasn’t even nominated for an Edgar, a distinction it shares with everything else that ever appeared under the name Richard Stark.

In point of fact, nothing that happens in Butcher’s Moon is a whit less likely than a short stout balding man working for a large soulless private detective agency taking it upon himself to clean up a corrupt violent city by turning two criminal factions against each other with near-diabolic Machiavellian prowess, then walking away with nary a scratch on him to his next thrilling adventure.  Nothing against Hammett, I’m just saying.  ‘Bigger than life’ is pretty much the wheelhouse for the entire mystery/crime/suspense genre.   Always has been.

Whatever it is makes a piece of fiction worthy of significant long-term scrutiny–or simply throwaway entertainment, which has its place in the scheme of things, but is destined to be forgotten over time–it isn’t whether or not it could happen in real life, anymore than we judge a painting by how perfectly it mirrors its model.  Realism is just one tool in the kit.  It’s how effectively you wield the tools you choose for the job that counts.   Not whether people believe the story in retrospect, but whether they’re caught up in it when they’re experiencing it, and whether it has some unique and compelling perception to impart, above and beyond the spinning of a good yarn–but never instead of that. The yarn comes first, or what’s the point?  You could just write a pedantic long-winded essay to get your insights across.  I do, all the time.  Back to the synopsis.

So Parker is no longer merely concerned with getting his 73 thousand dollars from the Tyler mob, which at this time they have no intention of giving him anyway.  They have enraged him on some primal level by sending him Grofield’s severed finger in a box, and telling him they’ll keep cutting things off Grofield until Parker agrees to come talk to them, at which time of course he’ll be killed, as will Grofield, because they’ve got to make him the fall guy for Lozini’s murder by Calesian, who is now taking control of the organization.

They’re saying they’ll give him the money, Grofield, and an ambulance to take Grofield away in, and it’s hard to say whether they believe Parker is stupid enough to buy this, but even pretending they think he’s that stupid is pretty damned insulting.

If they had not sent him the finger, Grofield’s fate would be none of his business, and he’d have kept focusing on the money.  But the mix of sadism and duplicity in this ultimatum has brought out the inner wolf, to an extent we’ve never seen before.  He does not merely wish to kill the people directly responsible–his intent now is to decapitate the syndicate in Tyler, kill everyone who had any connection to this ‘peace offering.’   Not simply one or two individuals, but the organization itself needs to die for the disquiet in his mind to be quelled.

And, lest we forget, he still needs the money, which he knows now he’s going to have to take by force, from a large number of armed men.  And for that he needs a crew.  So drawing upon his long years of heisting, a file of exceptionally capable fellow pros he’s compiled in his head since before we first met him, he persuades eleven first-rate heisters to come to Tyler on short notice, with the promise that rich pickings await.  His reputation as a planner is all the inducement they need.  If Parker says there’s loot to be had, they believe it.

These men don’t work for anybody but themselves–they’re all hardcore independents like him.  But they have all proven to Parker that they can work with others of their kind as a disciplined unit, and there’s a toughness to them, a self-sufficiency, that no midwest mafiosi can match.   They are the closest human analog he’ll ever find to an actual wolf pack.  Though getting them to agree to what he has in mind will be more like herding cats.

The group assembled in some vacationing couple’s vacant apartment, Parker brings out his captive, Frankie Faran, who has given Parker all the intel he needs to rob the Tyler outfit down to their skivvies in one night.  Faran’s will has broken down entirely–he mechanically answers all the questions they ask him.   They’re left in little doubt that they can grab a lot of money–and because nobody steals from mobsters, and mobsters can’t call the cops in to defend illegal earnings, they’ll meet token resistance, if any at all.

Normally they’d need to finance a job, work out a plan, assign tasks–there’d be financial as well as physical risk, an investment of time and resources–but that’s all been attended to prior to their arrival–Parker has the jobs all mapped out.  He’s even stolen a small arsenal of guns they can use and throw away, none of which could ever be traced to them.  They’ll be leaving town the next day, so they can just steal any cars or other equipment they need.  It’s a very tempting proposition, but here’s the kicker–everything they take they can split eleven ways.  Parker wants none of it.   What the….?

He shows them the finger.  Explains where it came from.  Most of them don’t know Grofield at all, some (like Wycza) do.  They don’t like it, turns their stomachs a bit, but they still don’t get what he’s driving at.

And here may be my favorite passage in the entire series–where Westlake finally makes Parker explain himself–admit what he’d only privately admitted in The Seventh–that sometimes he does things that don’t make sense on purely pragmatic terms, because he can’t do anything else.   Because sometimes a wolf’s gotta do what a wolf’s gotta do.  But what he learned from that experience, perhaps, is that it’s best to have everybody in the crew on the same page.  And to be honest, with your partners and yourself, about what you’re really after.

“I want Grofield back,” Parker said, “and I want my money.  And I want those people dead.”

Hurley gestured, wanting more.  He said, “So?”

“So I set you people up with scores, you go do them, you’ve got good money you wouldn’t have had.  You’ll all be finished, back here, by when?  Three, four in the morning?

Most of them shrugged in agreement.  Hurley bobbed his head, saying, “Probably.  Then what?”

“Then you come with me,” Parker said.  “The twelve of us hit Buenadella’s house and get Grofield out of there.  And if they moved him somewhere, we find out where and go hit that place.”  He checked off names on his fingers, saying  “And we make them dead.  Buenadella.  Calesian.  Dulare.”

His intensity had startled them a little.  Nobody said anything until Handy McKay, speaking very quietly, said “That’s not like you.”

What kind of shit was this?  Parker had expected a back-up from Handy, not questions.  He said, “What’s not like me?”

“A couple things,” Handy said.  “For one, to go to all this trouble for somebody else.  Grofield, me, anybody.  We all of us here know we got to take care of ourselves, we’re not the Travelers Aid Society.  You, too.  And the same with Grofield.  What happens to him is up to him.”

“Not when they send him to me piece by piece,” Parker said.  “If they kill him, that’s one thing.  If they turn him over to the law, get him sent up, that’s his lookout.  But these bastards rang me in on it.”

Handy spread his hands, letting that point go.  “The other thing,” he said, “is revenge.   I’ve never seen you do anything but play the hand you were dealt.  Now all of a sudden you want a bunch of people dead.”

Parker got to his feet.  He’d been patient a long time, he’d explained things over and over, and now he was getting itchy.  Enough was enough.  “I don’t care,” he said.  “I don’t care if it’s like me or not.  These people nailed my foot to the floor, I’m going around in circles, I’m not getting anywhere.  When was it like me to take lumps and just walk away?  I’d like to burn this city to the ground, I’d like to empty it right down to the basements.  And I don’t want to talk about it anymore, I want to do it.  You’re in, Handy, or you’re out.  I told you the setup, I told you what I want, I told you what you’ll get for it.  Give me a yes or a no.”

Tom Hurley said, “What’s the goddam rush?  We got over an hour before we can hit any of these things.”

Stan Devers, getting to his feet, said, “Just time enough for a nap.  I’m in, Parker.”   He turned to Wycza, beside him.  “Dan?”

Wycza wasn’t quite ready to be pushed.  He frowned up at Devers, frowned across the room at Parker, seemed on the verge of telling everybody to go drop dead, and then abruptly shrugged and said, “Sure, what the hell.  I like a little boom-boom sometimes.”

Handy said, “Parker, I was never anything but in, you know that.”

Ed Mackey said, “Shit, we’re all in.  I know Grofield, he’s a pleasant guy, we don’t want anybody out there dismantling him.”

Mike Carlow, the driver, who hadn’t had anything at all to say up till now, said, “I don’t know this guy Grofield from a dune buggy.  In fact, I don’t even know any of you people.  But I know Parker, and I’m in.”

They were all in.  Parker, looking from face to face, saw that none of them was even thinking of bowing out.  Some of the tension eased out of Parker’s shoulders and back.  “All right,” he said.  “All right.”

As inspirational locker-room speeches go, it’s a bit bloody-minded, but the objective is the same–each man has individual goals–Parker needs them to work as a group.  Most of them have, in the past, been beneficiaries of his thorough-going professionalism–Devers got his start in ‘the profession’ through Parker, who sent him to Handy for training.  Handy owes Parker his life, several times over–he never thought that was because Parker had any special feeling for him, but he himself has always clearly seen Parker as a friend.  Carlow got out of jail and found out Parker had not only managed to turn that soured coin heist into a paying proposition, he’d saved Carlow’s share for him.  Because that’s what one professional does for another.   The Travelers Aid Society they ain’t, but membership does have its privileges.

So under the influence of Parker’s most atypical burst of eloquence, this motley group of misfits becomes an army, unified by the need to score–but also their respect for this man who embodies the spirit of their illegal enterprise better than anyone else.  There’s more than a little wolf in each of them–but he’s all wolf.  And they’re his pack now.  Until the job is done.

Westlake wrote this scene, I surmise, because he knew longtime readers would have problems with this seeming face-turn–as he himself might have had–after all, he repeatedly dismissed The Jugger, one of his best books, because he felt he hadn’t provided enough of an explanation for why Parker would respond to Joe Sheer’s pathetic plea for help.  But here I think he felt he had pulled it off–yes, it seems like Parker wants to help Grofield, is playing the noble hero, but is that really what’s going on?

Each of us can make up our own minds, reading these books, what feelings, if any, Parker has for the men he works with.  Perhaps none at all.  But they are, for all that, the men he works with.  And Parker’s work is who he is, what he is, all he is.  It’s his identity.  Without it, he’s nothing.  Which means without them, he’s nothing.  He’s not a pickpocket or a mugger.  He’s a heister.  Heisters work in strings, just like wolves hunt in packs.   That’s what made him turn to this life in the first place–it’s the closest thing he could find in this insane human world into which he was mistakenly born to the instinctive template in his head.

He needs Grofield, the money, and the Tyler ganglords dead.  Why?  Because in sending him that finger, and lying to him about the money and the ambulance, they reminded him, yet again, of that irrational cruelty in humankind that has always made his brain itch.  They reminded him he is an alien in this world, that he will never belong here, among these naked apes.

It’s not to save Grofield that he does this, but to make their lie the truth.  They said he would get Grofield, the money, and an ambulance, so he will get Grofield, the money, and an ambulance.  And they will die for promising what they had no intention of delivering, and for having the presumption to include him in their madness with that finger.  He isn’t like them.   He’s something else.  Something they should have left alone.

One more thing, and I know I’m getting offtrack here, but bear with me–I had the privilege, about a year back, to attend a gathering of Donald Westlake’s closest friends and colleagues, as well as his wife Abby, and I saw the way they spoke about him.  I heard the note of loss in their voices.  They were not mourning the loss of a great writer.  They were still feeling the loss of a once-in-a-lifetime friend, a gap in their lives that would never be filled.  I’ve seen this in what people who knew him wrote about him after his death.   They loved him.  Can anyone doubt he returned the feeling?  When we see Rosie refer ironically to ‘The loyalty of friendship’, in The Hunter, we should understand that loyalty–to one’s friends as well as oneself–meant more to him than anything.  He just knows that it has its limits.  A flawed yet vital shelter from the harsh winds of an indifferent cosmos.

Much as Richard Stark may represent a side of Westlake that wants to feel less, to be left alone to do his work, to not give a damn about anyone or anything, because giving a damn hurts so damn much, he did nonetheless give a damn.  About lots of things, lots of people.  And that can’t help but bleed its way into the Stark books, and therefore into their central protagonist.  The moral of those books was never “This is how things should be,” but “This is how things are, so how do we live with it and still remain ourselves?”

Regardless of what Mr. Newgate Callendar may have thought ‘the real world’ to be like, let’s be frank–it’s not a nice place.  Men are mainly governed by greed, power, and lust (women too, sorry girls).  True honesty is the rarest of commodities, people you can fully trust even rarer.  We cling to family and friendships so fiercely, because we all know it’s true.  It’s not just a convention of what we sometimes call noir fiction–noir is merely a stylized expressionistic take on everyday human life, which is why it’s endured as a literary form, and has had such a broad and pervasive influence across all mediums.   We all walk down mean streets sometimes.  Some of them a lot meaner than others.   Noir is a romanticized form of realism, and nobody ever understood this better than that wounded romantic, Richard Stark.

But when I come down from this flight of fancy, I can think of one other, much more mundane reason for Parker behaving this way–unless Westlake wrote this book quite a good long while before it was published, he would have written it after he’d seen John Flynn’s The Outfit, based rather loosely on the third Parker novel that serves, you might say, as the foundation of this much more ambitious narrative.

That movie’s version of Parker, played by Robert Duvall, refuses to leave that movie’s version of Handy McKay, played by Joe Don Baker, when the latter is badly wounded, and tells ‘Macklin’ to leave him.   Macklin puts on an EMT’s white jacket, and commandeers an ambulance to get him and his comrade away from the scene of the final gun battle.   Like at least half that movie, Flynn did not get that idea from the book he was adapting.  There’s an ambulance used for criminal purposes in The Seventh, which had already been turned into a movie, which Flynn presumably saw, so maybe that was the inspiration.

Westlake liked Flynn’s movie (more than I do), and would have enjoyed the irony of two killers escaping a scene of mayhem in an ambulance under the guise of medic and patient.  So assuming Flynn didn’t somehow get the idea from Westlake (who didn’t work on that film at all, not even as a consultant), I’d say that Westlake got the idea of the ambulance from Flynn’s movie, and improved and elaborated upon it to an exponential degree, transforming a mere throwaway gag into a wry thematic statement.

You’d think somebody would have asked him about that sometime, but unless there’s an interview somewhere I’ve missed, I guess we’ll never know for sure.   And this is what comes of not taking books like this seriously while their authors are still alive.  I better finish the synopsis before this gets completely out of hand.

Parker’s friends go out and do their heists, all of which go off without a hitch, and this is by far the most enjoyable part of the book.   Characters we’ve loved from earlier books, who have never met before in many cases, sizing each other up, working together beautifully, exchanging professional tips and iconoclastic points of view while doing their jobs, and honestly–Newgate Callendar may have been a fantastic music critic, but for him to say “Stark is not much for characterization” is just staggeringly unforgivably wrong.  Stark can tell you more about a character with one paragraph than most writers could with a trilogy.  But see, it’s the kind of characterization you normally find in the best short stories, not in novels.  Thumbnail portraits.  Callendar is applying the wrong standards here, because to him this is just light entertainment he reads to get away from himself.  Which is fine, but it blinds him to all the other things it can be.

Dan Wycza in particular gets to shine.  True, Parker said he was dead, back in The Rare Coin Score, but that doesn’t really need any explaining, since there’s no reason to think Parker witnessed his reputed demise.  In his world, false rumors must abound, and how could he check on them?  Westlake must have felt that Stark had disposed of Dan too hastily, too peremptorily, and issued a reprieve–we’ll have reason to be glad of that in future books.

At one point, Wycza, Stan Devers, and Mike Carlow are going to grab drug money from a courier and his two menacing bodyguards–named Trask and Slade, a wink to Westlake’s biggest hit of the 60’s, The Fugitive Pigeon.  Devers figures they just have to wound one of them, and the others will give up–no need to kill them.  Stan’s a good-natured kid.  Wycza and Devers, the seasoned veterans, have the bodyguards down as hard cases, and the courier as a rabbit–they’ll figure if they lose the money they’re dead no matter what, so they’ll fight, or run.  But they give Devers a chance to test his theory.  The theory fails to pan out, and they go with Plan B–three dead men.  Another life lesson for Stan.

Meanwhile, Wiss and Elkins grab a stockbroker and his wife from their bed–the cleanest job of the night, and the most profitable.  The stockbroker’s son got into trouble with the law a while back, and Lozini fixed it for him.  In exchange, the stockbroker had to keep money he knew was dirty in his office safe.   The stockbroker’s humiliation outweighs his fear–he knew all along he was compromising his integrity, but what else could he do?

He weeps brokenly on the street, after Wiss and Elkins leave with the loot, swearing he’ll never do anything for Lozini and his friends again.   He doesn’t know that’s not ever going to be an issue again, after tonight.  Free at last.  Unburdened of his guilt–and one hundred and forty six thousand smackers, so good thing there’s not going to be anybody left to complain.

I detect more than a whiff of O. Henry in this vignette–and more than a hint of Westlake’s own abiding guilt over the pain he put his father through, when he got in trouble with the law, many years before, and dad had to pull strings to get him off the hook.  One of those stories from Westlake’s past that keeps popping up in his fiction, different each time, but always the same underneath. A father now himself, he knows that no matter how high a value you place on your honor, your most deeply-held values, your obligations to your children will make you sell yourself on the cheap, time and again.   A much darker take on this story will appear in a much later novel, that I think may have helped trigger the resurrection of Richard Stark, but we can worry about that later.

Most of these jobs, in one way or another, refer back to earlier jobs Parker has done–for example, Handy and Ducasse take over the office of a private security firm, that handles alarm systems for the Tyler mob.  That’s clearly a reference to Parker & Co. taking over Copper Canyon in The Score.  Not mere nostalgic references, what we’re seeing here is that Parker has been learning all the time we’ve known him, improving his craft, making professional connections, and becoming better, in his own way, at working with other people, understanding them.   He’s not such a lone wolf anymore.  He couldn’t afford to be, if he wanted to stay solvent, free, and breathing.

I think this is one reason the book does not refer to The Seventh and The Sour Lemon Score–both about jobs that went completely wrong, where Parker’s crew ended up dead, where he either didn’t work well with his colleagues, or he was off on his own most of the time, and if he got his cut, as in The Seventh, it was mainly by dint of his strange luck.   That’s not what this book is about.  This book is about teamwork.   In some ways, we may prefer to see Parker left to his own dark devices, the rugged individualist on a lonely quest, but in all but those two books (and The Hunter, which Westlake couldn’t very well avoid mentioning here), he actually works very well with others.  As long as they work well with him.

They get back to the apartment, pockets loaded with cash–“Son of a blue bitch, boys, that’s a quarter million dollars”, Mackey says quietly.  More than that, actually–and in today’s terms, it’s almost a million and a half, for one night’s work.  Split eleven ways, each man gets a bit over 25k.  The army has its wages.  Time to start the war.

Elsewhere, Calesian has already lost the power he so briefly grasped at–as word has trickled in about all the syndicate businesses Parker’s friends have hit, it’s all too obvious that his plan to either lure Parker in for the killing or scare him away has backfired in spectacular fashion.  He’s being ignored now, and Dulare, who was content to let somebody else steer the ship, has taken the wheel, to try and keep it off the rocks.

They’ve holed up at Buenadella’s house, waiting out the moonless night, with a lot of men and guns, Grofield lying unconscious upstairs.   Even though Calesian assumes they’ll kill Parker eventually, he knows it’ll be too late for him.  His moment is gone.  He still doesn’t understand just how badly he screwed up, but somebody there will try to explain it to him.  Somebody we have to briefly look at, and now I’m thinking I should have made this a four-parter after all.  There’s just too damn much material in this book.

The only high-ranking member of the Tyler outfit who isn’t present is Frank Schroder, but he’s sent a deputy in his place–guy named Quittner, “a cold bastard, tall and skinny and pallid as death.”  That’s a real name that people have, but I don’t think it was just picked at random out of the phone book.

It’s never stated out loud, but it comes out in small subtle ways.  Quittner is the only one who understands Parker, who knows what they’re up against.  He knows Parker wouldn’t be coming after them if not for the finger–“He wasn’t the right man for that.”   He knows Parker will not be content to steal from them while they cower in the house–“He’ll come for his friend,” he predicts quietly.  How can he know all this?  Because he’s what Parker would have been if Parker had compromised with the world he was born into, gone to work for someone else, given up his freedom.  He’s a failed Parker.   He quit on himself.

And underlying this is Westlake’s fear of what he might have become, if he had given in to the temptation to seek a safe regular job, instead of choosing the much more difficult and insecure path he did.  Stark is the fullest expression of the romantic in him, the part that refuses to compromise, at least on the big stuff. We all have to compromise sometimes; even real wolves do, but Stark is a defiant rejection of that fact–and at the same time, paradoxically, a tacit concession to it.

Quittner is a capable man, feared and respected by others in the organization, but Calesian thinks to himself that it’s unlikely he’ll ever try to take control.  Because somehow it’s not in his nature to be a boss, but it wasn’t in his nature to be an underling either, and this means that dangerous as he is, Quittner is to Parker as a mangy wolf in a cage is to a free-roaming alpha with a pack behind him.  In fact, his physical description is rather akin to that of Raven, the bitter beaten-down hired assassin of Graham Greene’s A Gun For Sale, which I believe partly inspired The Hunter–only no harelip.  Westlake wouldn’t be that obvious.

Quittner might as well be named Cassandra–there’s at least forty armed men in the house, they’re watching all the windows and doors, there’s no way Parker’s crew can come after them without getting cut down.  Not to mention there’s a state police surveillance van parked out front.  There’s no moon, but there’s artificial light–the modern equivalent of fire, man’s first real weapon against the beasts of the night.  And then the lights go out.

Parker has left nothing to chance.  He’s had Wiss and Elkins take out a power substation, causing the part of the city Buenadella’s house is in to be plunged into blackness.  Devers has cut the phone wires.  Hurley and Mackey have disarmed and tied up the cops in the surveillance van.   And what follows makes John Carpenter’s Assault on Precinct 13 look like–um–let me think–the crappy remake of that movie?

The three drivers, Webb, Carlow, and Dalesia park their cars on the front lawn, their headlights on bright, so that Parker and his men coming in the back will be able to see the mobsters outlined in the glare, the drivers’ guns preventing anyone from escaping out the front, or shooting out the headlights.   It’s a perfect trap, and it negates the advantage of numbers.  Confused and disheartened, the Tyler mob disintegrates, cut down one after the other, until the last few, including Dulare and Quittner, are holed up in a room, figuring that the cops have to show up soon, and Parker’s men will have to run for it.  Then Handy McKay rolls a bomb into the room.

There’s even a little nod to the good old Stark Rewind–we see a scene from Buenadella’s POV–he’s about to kill Grofield in his bed, out of pure pique–then he sees Parker pointing a gun at him–“Goodbye, Buenadella.”    Then the same scene from Parker’s POV, ending with the same two words.  Goodbye, Tyler mob.

Sure, Schroder is still alive, and presumably in charge now, but of what?  Most of their men are dead.  Their finances were already stretched thin from backing both mayoral candidates.  The state and federal law will come hard at them in the wake of all the chaos, and they’ve lost Calesian, their number one mole in the Tyler police force.  We never find out who gets elected mayor (because Stark doesn’t give a damn), but there’s no money to grease the wheels with, and it’s unlikely they could control either man now.  Their businesses have been ruined.  The national organization will offer no help.   There’ll still be crime, and corruption, and the men smart enough to cut and run were allowed to live, but the Tyler mob, as Parker knew it, is dead.

And surprisingly, Grofield is still alive.  Score one for Westlake/Vishnu–but Stark/Shiva needed a sacrifice–Ducasse caught a bullet.  Their only casualty.   Well, more loot for everyone else.  Speaking of loot, they break into Buenadella’s safe–Handy hands the money to Parker in a bag–says there’s just over fifty-eight thousand.  “Not enough,” Parker says.  He was owed seventy-three.  In the ruins of the house, with dead men lying all around him, he shrugs and says “I’ll settle.” See?  Everybody compromises.  You can let the small stuff go and still be yourself.

So did I mention they stole an ambulance beforehand?  Devers has put on a white jacket, and for no reason at all but good fellowship, offers to help Parker take Grofield home.  We can imagine the look on Mary’s face when they get back to that community theater in Indiana.  Maybe the 29k they hand her–Grofield’s share–will soften her expression slightly.   Maybe she lays down the law once Grofield is up and walking again–no more heists, no more blondes.  Maybe the IRS clapped him in prison for not paying taxes.  Maybe his theater finally became successful.  Maybe he decided there are worse things than working in television.  They only shoot at you with blanks there.

In the final chapter, Grofield wakes up to the vibration of the road they’re traveling, sees a strange face leaning over him–it’s a blonde all right, but not near as pretty as the one he saw when he woke up in a Mexican hotel room once.  He says as much.

“Aw,” the guy said.  “You’re disappointed.”

“Just so I wake up.  The girl’s name was Elly.”

“Right.  I’m Stan Devers.  Your friend Parker is driving this thing.”

Grofield tried to turn his head; it wouldn’t go.  Parker was driving the ambulance?  He whispered, “What the hell happened?”

“Well,” Stan Devers said, “that’s a long story.”

Long review too, and it’s not over yet.  I still have some questions to answer:

  • Why did Westlake stop writing Parker novels, or any other novels, under the name Richard Stark, for nearly a quarter century?
  • Why did he abandon the usual segmented chapter structure he’d employed in all but two of the Stark books?
  • Why did he bring Ed Mackey back from the dead without explaining how that happened or even mentioning Mackey’s apparent demise in the previous book?

I think the answer to all three questions is the same–this is not a true Richard Stark novel.  It’s a collaboration between Stark and Westlake.   Yes, I know that doesn’t make any sense.  Hear me out.

Westlake was starting to slip out of the Stark voice, as he was developing his own, which mingled elements of Stark, Coe, himself, maybe others.  It was getting harder for him to manage.   He’d written those books during a turbulent, often emotionally bruising period of his life–failed marriages, professional setbacks, and a rate of production that would have put most writers in a rubber room.

But he had Abby now.  He was older, more settled.   He no longer feared that Stark was the only voice of his that people really wanted (Dortmunder helped tremendously with that, and Dortmunder’s Starkian origins further blurred the line between Westlake and Stark).  He’d found a home for Westlake at M. Evans, that would allow him to hone his own voice, which was getting stronger all the time.  And he was increasingly aware that he hadn’t done this all by himself–he’d been surrounded all the time by friends, colleagues, spouses, lovers, kids, who had kept him afloat, offered help, advice, feedback, support, companionship.  No man is an island–not even a wolf-man.

So he wrote this one to more fully and explicitly express that side of Parker that had been there from the start–his long-frustrated quest for people he can trust. To show that Parker’s long losing streak in the Random House novels could only be ended with a little help from his friends.  And not everybody likes this.   But as that quote about the Greeks I put up top suggests, we’ve always had a dual vision of wolves–they can be the marauders who raid our camps, steal our livestock, chill our blood when we hear them howl on a dark night, while we wonder if they’re closing in on us–but they can also be the epitome of cooperation, camaraderie, and above all, loyalty, which is why we ended up making some of them into our best friends and helpmates.

And the thing is, they can be both of these things at the same time.  As Parker and his pack are in this story.   We feel a closeness to them in the chapters from their POV’s, and then we’re in the heads of the Tyler mob guys, and we shiver, thinking about what’s coming.  Our respect for the finer qualities of wolves should not blind us to the fact that they are still carnivores. And we are still made of meat.

So it wasn’t like the books he’d written before–he mingled his approach to storytelling with Stark’s, creating a fascinating hybrid–this is why he refers to so many books that appeared under his name over the past decade and change, as well as Stark’s.   This is why he used a chapter structure more appropriate to a Westlake novel (or a Culver?  Lots of politics here).

This is why he reached into the last novel and plucked Ed Mackey from his ignominious end, seemingly unscathed.   Because Westlake is a gentler god than Stark, and because he thought Mackey (and Brenda) were worth keeping around.  Westlake is much more reluctant to let go of good characters than Stark.   He didn’t explain Ed’s return because he knew it was an arbitrary authorial act–deus ex machina.   He explained it much later, along with Wycza’s return, probably just to make people stop bugging him about it.

The end result was a book that serves as a fitting capstone to everything that came before, and he may have felt on some level that no more was needed.   But he said that he tried later to write more Parker novels, and they just wouldn’t come. So I think the part of him that was Stark simply withdrew for a time, knowing that he wasn’t needed–that the purest expression of that aspect simply wouldn’t be possible for a time.

The Westlake who returned to writing as Stark around 1996 (interestingly enough, around the same time Butcher’s Moon was sold to Hollywood) was in his sixties, and feeling the tug of his mortality more and more.   That could have been enough, but there were other factors.   We’ll get to that too.

What we’ll get to next is as different from this book as a chuckle from a scream.  One of his finest comic novels, and certainly his most focused.   It all takes place in and around a prison.  And its hero is a real Kunt.  With an umlaut.

PS: I finished with the Japanese edition from Hayakawa, because it’s just so neat to see Westlake’s picture on the back cover.   Can anybody read the text?

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Filed under Butcher's Moon, Donald Westlake novels, Parker Novels

Review: Butcher’s Moon

butchers_moon_1st_1butchers_moon_1st_3   butchers_moon_germany_1 butchers_moon_italy1_1    Half_moon_in_the_sky

“You owe me some money,” the voice said.

That one left Lozini with nothing to say at all.  He stared at the sink on the opposite wall, speechless.  He couldn’t begin to think what the son of a bitch was talking about.

“Lozini?”

“Where–” Lozini cleared his throat.  “Where are you?”

“This is a local call.  You’ve got my money, I came back for it.”

“What money, you son of a bitch?  I don’t have any of your money, that’s not the score we have to settle.”

“The money I left behind.  You got it and I want it.  Do you give it to me easy, or do you give it to me after I make trouble?”

“I won’t give you anything,” Lozini yelled, “but a one-way ticket!”

The voice was staying calm.  It said, “Do you know a guy named Karns?”

“What?”

“He runs things,” the voice said.  “Your kind of things.”

“No, he doesn’t, that’s–Oh, I know who you mean.”  Then Lozini remembered to be mad again, and said “I don’t care who you know.  I’m after your head, and I’ll get it.”

“Call Karns,” the voice said.

“I don’t have to call any–”

“Call him and ask him,” the voice said, “what you should do if you owe some money to a guy named Parker.”

Hard to believe this is the twentieth Richard Stark novel I’ve reviewed, since I started out with The Hunter, back in April of last year.  Donald Westlake himself must have been at least a little surprised that he’d come this far with Stark–twenty novels at five publishers (not counting reprints in multiple languages).   Sixteen Parkers, four Grofields (and a smattering of early short stories hardly anyone reads today).  And in looking at what is, in several senses, the ultimate Parker novel (even though it ultimately proved not to be the final one), we must ask the question–did he know he wouldn’t be writing another one for a long time, if ever?   And whether he did or not–why? 

Throughout that great Starkian interregnum, Westlake always insisted that he’d never had any idea of abandoning his most famous pseudonym–of doing no more stories featuring Parker, Grofield, et al.   He would try to write another Parker novel, and it never sounded right.  The Stark voice refused to come to him, as it had in the past.  He could have just hammered something out and somebody would have published it.  But he neither needed nor wanted to do that.  So he ended up writing twenty-six novels over twenty-three years, along with two novellas, and a variety of other things, mainly (but not entirely) under his own name.  And this ended up being one of his most creative periods.

By this point in time, it was probably no longer true that Stark was outselling Westlake, as he reportedly had from the late 60’s through the early 70’s.  Westlake had established Dortmunder as a series character, and we can speculate that Westlake didn’t want to be spending most of his time working out variations on what he’d done before, which is what franchise fiction tends to be, no matter how well written and original.

This is also the twenty-first and final book Westlake published at Random House, ending what has to be considered his most seminal and productive stint at any one publisher–all of his 60’s novels under his own name, plus a short story collection, all five of the Mitchell Tobin mysteries of Tucker Coe, and finally the last four Parker novels (and the first to appear in hardcover).

It was at Random House that Westlake had truly matured as a writer, had made his reputation as a crime novelist (alternately dark and comical), and had benefited greatly from the editing savvy of Lee Wright, one of the most influential figures in the mystery field at that time (and really, of all time).  You can read more about her here, in this fascinating and well-researched piece, that makes one small error regarding the Grofield books being published at Random House, like I haven’t made far worse mistakes since I started this blog.

So having re-homed Parker to Random House, and severed all other professional relations with them, did Westlake stop working with his first major publisher because he wanted to stop writing Parker novels for a while, or did he stop writing Parker novels for a while because Random House didn’t want any more?  Was it a four book deal, that expired and was not renewed?  Is that why this book feels like a planned conclusion to the entire saga to date?  Because that is precisely what it does feel like.  A saga drawing to a close, with a vengeance.  Literally.

And yet it also feels like a fresh departure–for one thing, the format has changed.  Butcher’s Moon runs for fifty-five chapters, three hundred and six pages in the first edition, fully twice the length of many of the earlier books.  And yet unlike even the shortest of them, it’s not divided into four distinct parts–each part beginning with Chapter One.  From the very start, the format had been three parts from the POV of Parker, and one from the perspective of other characters–usually Part Three, and usually a number of different characters, but not always–in Deadly Edge, Part Three was devoted entirely to Claire, and in Slayground, the multi-POV section was Part Two.

These two exceptions aside, the multi-POV Part Three was so integral to the structure of the Parker books, Lawrence Block once referred to it as the scherzo in an overview of the series.   As I’ve remarked in the past, the books are about comparative psychology, contrasting Parker’s unique non-human mind with the far more familiar motivations and dysfunctions of the other characters.

This approach also carried over into the Grofield books, but was less well-defined, more experimental.  The Damsel tries the same four-part structure as the Parkers, but it doesn’t work nearly so well.  The Dame and The Blackbird use the conventional chapter structure Westlake employed in most of the books published under his own name–no perspective switches in those.  Lemons Never Lie is five parts, each named after its setting, and that worked very well (it’s a terrific book by any standard), but that’s once more entirely from Grofield’s POV.

Grofield may be really weird (what actor isn’t, really?)–but he’s quite human.  So while there may be moments where his own unique outlook on life is contrasted with that of the other characters, it’s more explicit and self-conscious–not integrated within the very structure of the book itself.

Westlake would return to this four-part format in the final eight novels he wrote about Parker, starting in 1997.  Was he just tired of the old system, experimenting to see if it would be better to abandon that device entirely?   Or was it just not suitable to the story he wanted to tell here, where the perspective needs to keep changing constantly?  What we can say with certainty is that this is the only Parker novel not broken up into four parts, and the only one where the perspective is constantly switching back and forth between Parker, Grofield, and a plethora of other characters.   Why? 

Whatever the reason, the result was a Parker novel like no other–in many ways, a novel like no other, no qualifier needed–a magisterial summing up of everything that had come before, while at the same time breaking with it.  Challenging the nature of this character we’d come to be so familiar with–and had perhaps deluded ourselves into thinking we understood.  This is one of the most popular books of the series today, and yet one of the most controversial in fan circles–because it seems at times that Parker is not behaving like himself.  To the point where one of his most trusted allies tells him that, in so many words.

And perhaps most atypically of all, Parker feels moved to explain himself to that ally.  Something he’d really only done once before, in The Black Ice Score, which Westlake had considered to be a really neat thing–forcing Parker into a situation where he had to go into a long involved backstory in order to ask for help from the Africans.  Most readers of that book have been less enthused about it.

But even then, Parker wasn’t addressing what motivated him, the gut feelings that drove him to a dangerous course of action–he figured it went without saying that when your mate is in danger, you go get her.  That doesn’t need any explaining.  Here his motives are murkier, harder to put into words, even for somebody who is comfortable expressing himself in words, as Parker is most definitely not–and yet he tries.  For the first time since we’ve known him, Parker wants to make himself understood.   Why?

This book features the return of not one but two characters from previous books that we had already been informed were dead.  We had basically witnessed one of them die in the previous book, published about two years earlier, also at Random House, and to which Butcher’s Moon is a direct sequel–from Parker’s POV, mere months have transpired between the end of that book and this one.

Westlake could not possibly have forgotten he’d killed these two characters off, he certainly could not have thought none of his readers would spot the discrepancy, and yet not the slightest explanation of these two defacto resurrections is offered, nor would any be offered, until the next cycle of books began to appear, twenty-three years later.  Why? 

This is going to be at least a three parter, so let me save some of my other querulous queries–and my highly speculative answers thereto–for later.  Let’s start the synopsis already.  We have ground to cover.

As the first of the Random House Parkers, Deadly Edge, opens at the start of a successful heist, Butcher’s Moon opens at the end of a failed one.  Parker and three of his colleagues are running from the law, having tried to hold up a jewelry store, and tripped a silent alarm that was not mentioned in a plan they’d bought from a guy who spots potential jobs, works out the details, and sells the plan to still-active heisters (this is the third time in four books that Parker has been part of a job like this).

One of the crew, Michaelson, is hit by a police bullet, and falls–Parker not only leaves him to his fate, he orders Briggs, the techie of the group, to throw a homemade bomb at the stairway Michaelson’s inert form is draped over, to keep the cops from getting down there and discovering their tunnel from the next building before they can make their escape.  Briggs doesn’t want to do it, to which Parker replies “He’s finished, we’re not.  Close it up.”  If Michaelson wasn’t dead already, he is now.

They get out of the next-door building, and are picked up by their driver, Nick Dalesia, who we’ll be seeing again, far in the future.   Hurley (presumably no relation to the now-deceased child-molesting stoolie of The Handle)  is furious about the omission of the silent alarm from the plan, and wants retribution–or at least a refund.  Dalesia goes along with him without any real enthusiasm for the pointless venture.

Briggs says he’s just going to retire to Florida for a bit.   He and the remaining string member, Hurley, have been running an unlucky streak of late, one job after another turning sour.  So has Parker, whose reserve funds are starting to run dry.   He tells Briggs he’s going to go get some money he left behind, a while back.  It’s hard out there for a thief.

Next chapter we pick up with Grofield, and I guess he never did take Parker’s advice, way back when we first met him in The Score, to make sure he can justify his income to the IRS.  The tax man is there at his perpetually impecunious community theater in Indiana, inquiring why he’s had no income to report for five years.  It’s not quite clear whether he submitted a return or not, or how well his books will hold up to close scrutiny, but while he’s giving the Fed the runaround in the patented Grofield fashion, his lovely wife Mary tells him he’s got a call he should probably take elsewhere.

It turns out to be Parker–he tells Grofield to meet him in Tyler.  He doesn’t say precisely why, but Grofield figures it out–it’s the money from the armored car job–the one where Grofield woke up in a hospital, and then ended up fighting foreign terrorists in Canada.  Yeah, I wouldn’t have forgotten that either.

So it turns out the city in Slayground–the one with the inaptly named ‘Fun Island’ at its outskirts–is named Tyler.  It’s in the mid-west somewhere.  It has a rundown salesman’s hotel named Ohio House, where Parker and Grofield meet up, but that hardly proves it’s in Ohio–there’s an Ohio House motel in Chicago, and this sure as hell ain’t Chicago.   It has a population of 150,000, is located along a major tributary of the Mississippi, was named after future President John Tyler after he stopped there on the campaign trail in 1840, is quite prosperous at the moment, and is politically rotten, but not 100% ‘sewn up’.   You can try to figure out if it’s based on a real town, if you like, but truth is that description would match up to a lot of small mid-western cities of the period.  That’s kind of the point.  But at least we know its name now.

(Sidebar: I might venture out on a limb and say Tyler is Cincinnati, which has a famous amusement park named King’s Island–hmm!–actually in a nearby town, but that’s quibbling–Cincinnati has certainly had its share of organized crime–but it had a lot more than 150k people back in the early 70’s.  Columbus might be the stronger candidate, since John Tyler actually did speak at a convention there in 1840, but it’s also too large, and seems to have had no major amusement parks at the time this book is set.  The Ohio towns that do have suitable amusement parks are too small to be Tyler.  Westlake could have just used a real city, as he had in the past [The Rare Coin Score], but he’s getting into politics here, and wants more room to maneuver.  Let’s just call Tyler a composite, and leave it at that.)

Parker and Grofield head for the amusement park, and damn, that’s where they got that silly scene from the beginning of Parker (the movie), where ‘Parker’ (the Jason Statham character) wins some kid a stuffed toy.  Grofield is fooling around at the shooting gallery, and gives his extra turns to some kids hanging around.   No, he’s not dressed as a priest, though he does alternate between pretending he’s Humphrey Bogart and a B-film cowboy.   Affable gent, Mr. Grofield.  But he’s not feeling so affable when he and Parker find out the money is gone from its hiding place–somebody found it.  Somebody took it.   Somebody’s in big big trouble.

Parker anticipated this eventuality, and knows exactly who to contact–Adolph Lozini, head of the local mob, who tried so hard to find and kill Parker two years earlier, after Parker whacked his lieutenant and presumptive heir, Mr. Caliato (who was trying to kill Parker, and don’t any of you find it irritating when some bad guy says “I’ll kill you for killing that friend of mine who was trying to kill you!  If you’d just let him kill you, I wouldn’t kill you now!”  There is a logical fallacy there that this type of character somehow never perceives.  Probably not in real life either.)

What you see up top is a representative sampling of Parker’s phone conversation with Lozini, who still wants to kill Parker, but who is baffled–and unnerved–by Parker’s insistence that he has Parker’s money.  He doesn’t.  Far as he’s concerned, the park was heavily searched by his employees, and no money was ever found.  He’s half-right about that.   Lozini is going to learn that you can be half-right a few times too often.

Finding Lozini to be unreasonable, not that he really expected anything else, Parker figures he’ll try a variation on what he did in The Outfit–hit them where it hurts.  He has Grofield do some research at the local library, which has a very sexy young local librarian, who happens to be blonde, and you know where this is going, right?   Pouring over past issues of the local papers on a decrepit microfilm reader, Grofield gets a lot of the particulars about the local rackets and racketeers, as well as the librarian’s phone number (he doesn’t even have to ask for it).  She awaits his call eagerly.  You know, sometimes I really hate Grofield.

Armed with this intel, Parker and Grofield hit three mob-connected businesses in one night–a club, a brewery a parking garage–not merely taking cash (of which there isn’t much), but checks and credit card receipts–useless to them, but with so much business being conducted via credit cards, they’re cutting heavily into Lozini’s income.  Parker’s belated revenge against the cashless society he has come to know and loathe.  Our present-day modern electronic billing systems don’t exist yet–they still mainly need a physical record of the transaction in order to bill the customers, or even to know who the customers were.  Who says there’s no such thing as a free lunch?

They’re cruising around in a ‘borrowed’ Buick Riviera that night, and there’s no particular need for me to post an image, but I like those cars (Due South fan), so–

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(The one they steal is sort of maroon-colored, but I like black better, sue me.)

At the brewery, Grofield has to brace the night watchman, who wouldn’t you know, turns out to be Donald Snyder, the same hapless old guy who was guarding Fun Island the night Parker had his run-in with Lozini’s boys, two years earlier.  At the time, Caliato ordered him blindfolded, gagged, and tied up while their hunt for Parker went on, so he couldn’t identify them–a terrifying experience for the old man.  Grofield considerately agrees not to blindfold and gag him this time, but has to handcuff him and lock him in the executive washroom–with a message for Lozini that Donald doesn’t understand, because he doesn’t even know who Adolph Lozini is, let alone that he works for the guy.

Donald (and do you for even one minute suppose that name was picked out of a hat?) has no idea what happened at Fun Island two years ago.  He has no idea what’s happening now.  Neither he nor Grofield nor Parker (who is elsewhere at the brewery) are aware of this remarkable coincidence.  Nor will any of them ever be made aware of it afterwards, though Lozini is somewhat bemused when they report the theft to him, and he realizes it’s the same guy from Fun Island.  Starkian Irony.

Lozini is most unhappy to hear about Parker and Grofield’s activities, but doesn’t really know what to do about them.  For all his bluster, he’s not in a good position to fight back right now, because as Parker noted when he came into town, there’s an election in the offing.  Parker sees that one candidate clearly has a lot more backing than the other, more signs, more advertising, and figures that’s the machine’s pick–the machine being controlled by Lozini.

Parker doesn’t give a damn about the election, of course, but it’s relevant to his agenda, because Lozini doesn’t dare get into a major shooting war with two crazy heisters, right before the voting starts.  The town, as I said, is not 100% sewn-up, there is a reform movement, there are newspapers, as well as state and federal and even some local cops who aren’t in his pocket, and all are waiting patiently for him to make a wrong move.

Hoping to learn something useful, Lozini takes Parker’s ominous advice, and calls Walter Karns, who he knows slightly.  This is the third and final appearance (over the phone this time) of the wily ganglord who took over from Bronson after the events of The Outfit.  Organized crime in the Stark books is basically a lot of local bosses, and a few who coordinate at the national level.  There’s a lot of specific information about the way the Tyler mob is organized–more than in any of the previous novels–that’s because Westlake has made not only the mob but the town it’s headquartered in up out of whole cloth, and can therefore say whatever he wants about either.   An old Dashiell Hammett trick, right out of Red Harvest, that Westlake employs with gusto.

The mob is a bit more Italian in the later novels than the early ones, but Westlake was never willing to just come out and say “The mob is an Italian thing”–it really never was just Italians, at any point–and of course Westlake was still remembering his own father’s reputed connection with an Irish gangster back in the Prohibition era, as I discussed in my re-review of 361.  He was never interested in doing a realistic take on the mob, because to him a crime syndicate is just a metaphor for corporate culture–a culture he tends to despise.  Ever since The Mercenaries, Westlake has mainly depicted gangsters as lackeys, company men.  That has not changed.

Karns tells Lozini (obliquely, because their phones are bugged by the law) that if Parker says you owe him money, the most prudent policy is to pay him.  He also says Lozini should ask someone about Cockaigne (the island casino Parker and his associates looted and burned at Karns’ behest in The Handle).  Lozini is impressed, in spite of himself, but still resisting the idea of letting some two-bit hood strongarm him.  And for the record, Karns is a variant spelling of Kearns, an old Irish name. Westlake the mick, writing in the era of The Godfather, gets some small satisfaction out of having the smart Irish national boss set the befuddled Italian local boss straight, something that that certainly could not have happened in the 1970’s.  The ancient rivalry lives on.

The Handle gets more of a boost than any other Parker novel here in this most self-referential of all the Parker books–Lozini later talks to an employee of his named Frankie Faran (who runs the club Parker and Grofield hit.  Frankie heard the whole story of the Cockaigne heist directly from Yancy, the cocktail loving thug who interfaced between Parker and The Outfit on that job.

They were drinking together, and Yancy, probably drunk as usual, must have spun quite a yarn–he got a few details wrong (only Parker and Grofield know the real story), but the gist remains the same–this man Baron was thumbing his nose at one of the most powerful syndicates in the country for years, sitting there invulnerable on an island, protected by the Cubans and thirty armed men, and this guy Parker went in there with a few other independents, left the place burning, and Baron ended up dead.  Lozini is now imagining his own kingdom going up in flames, and him with it.   Not at all a pleasant mental image.  So he knows he’s in a bad situation here.  He doesn’t know the half of it yet.

And then briefly we’re with Officer O’Hara, the ill-tempered impatient bought cop from Slayground, the one Parker forced to undress, so he could get out of Fun Island disguised as a cop.  O’Hara, still on Lozini’s payroll, still, has been made aware that Parker is back in town–certain elements of the police force have been marshaled to try and find him and his heister buddy.  O’Hara thinks to himself how much he’d like to get the son of a bitch back for the humiliation he suffered.

He’ll never get the chance–in a diner restroom, a guy he clearly knows says hello, then shoots him in the head.  I said in my review of Slayground that it’s surprising both the corrupt cops–enforcing the law while consorting with crooks–get away with their lives.  Not so surprising now.   Anybody who says Richard Stark is all about amorality is not paying close attention.  Alternate morality.  Know who you are, or die.

Later in the book, the same fate awaits Officer Dunstan, O’Hara’s  younger more sympathetic partner, who got tired of living a double life, retired from the force (with a tiny pointless pension they insist on sending him), and moved 300 miles away to start over fresh.   But it’s not enough.  He gets whacked as well.   The Great God Stark is not to be bargained with.  You have to live with the consequences of every bad decision you make–well, you don’t necessarily have to live with them.

Parker calls Claire at a hotel in Florida (it’s summer, so they’ve temporarily vacated the house in New Jersey), and this is her only appearance in the book–at this point, they don’t need to say much to each other.  They can express everything they feel in a few words.  There are a few brief references to the events of The Rare Coin Score, The Black Ice Score, Deadly Edge–books where the violence of Parker’s world affected her directly.   She still wants to stay as far from that world as possible.

Before they say goodbye, Claire tells Parker Handy McKay called–not about potential work for Parker, but something else–she says he sounded unhappy.  Parker thinks, as he calls Handy, about what happened to his last contact, Joe Sheer, in The Jugger.  You know he’s wondering if something like that is happening to Handy–meaning that he might have to kill Handy.  It’s just implied, not said out loud.  It goes without saying, really.

Handy wants back into the heisting racket.  His diner in Maine is going bust, because a new highway shunted truck traffic away from the town–his main source of customers.  He wants Parker to know that he’s still good at what they do–don’t do him any favors, just put him back on the active list.   Parker predicted, long ago, that Handy wouldn’t stay retired–he’s proven right once more.   And there’s a reference to The Mourner, as well–Handy’s last appearance as a heister in the series.  Is this book going to reference every single book that came before it?

Lozini, increasingly desperate, calls for a meet with Parker and Grofield, to be conducted on neutral turf, out of town.  He manages to convince Parker he never had the money from the armored car heist–but he sent men in there to look for it–clearly some of them took it–and never told him.  And no low-level employee would have dared to do that.   Meaning somebody high-up gave the order.

At a subsequent meeting, conducted at Lozini’s office, with some of his top-ranking men, Parker hammers this point home.  Somebody is making his move.  Maybe several somebody’s.   Why don’t they just kill Parker right there?  Because Grofield isn’t there, and they pull a bluff that Grofield is ready to blow up Lozini’s house if he doesn’t hear back from Parker.

At this point, killing Parker is no longer Lozini’s main objective–his control of his own organization is slipping from his fingers, in spite of everyone outwardly deferring to him.   Somebody clearly killed O’Hara–who would have been in on the heisting of Parker’s heist–to make sure he didn’t talk.  That somebody has more in mind than just covering his tracks.  And that somebody must have gotten most of the seventy-three grand from Fun Island, because O’Hara clearly didn’t.  A high-ranking bought cop named Calesian makes that very clear indeed. Parker has a feeling there are other things about Calesian that are not so clear.

Parker and Grofield just want their cash, and before the election–their only real leverage.  But in spite of themselves, they’re getting drawn into a Machiavellian gangland power play.   Smart as they are, and in spite of Grofield’s research, they’re out of their area of expertise, both of them–this is too complicated a situation to favor their skill set.  And the crucial irony is that their mere presence is creating a crisis–exposing machinations that were supposed to stay hidden a while longer.  Screwing up everybody’s plans, their own included.

We’re at Chapter 17–oh you can just bet this is going to three parts–and two men are talking in a parked car.  One of them is the guy making his move against Lozini–he was not at the meeting, the other guy was, and they are having a somewhat heated conversation.  We learn the hit on O’Hara was somebody on their team, but acting on his own, without either man’s knowledge, and his initiative is not being applauded–he’s complicated matters, drawn attention to what’s coming.  If there’s one universal dictum in the world of Richard Stark, it’s don’t make murder the answer to everything.  But some people just can’t seem to help themselves, and not just in the world of Richard Stark, you ever notice that?

And finally (for this week) we close with Chapter 18, exactly 100 pages into the book.  Grofield is the backseat of a car (an Impala this time, I don’t like those as much, no image) screwing the girl from the library–well, they were screwing, and then they both apparently dozed off, awaking in a state of coitus reservatus.   Ever the actor, he thinks of her as Madame Librarian, ala The Music Man, but just for the record, her name is Dori Neevin.  She will not be heard from again in future, so now would be the time to mention that.

We’re told Grofield feels a bit guilty about seducing her on somewhat false pretenses (this time he’s not being upfront about being married, because he’s under cover, so to speak).  Alan Grofield is never very guilty about anything, but there’s always this residual conscience nagging at him–and you can hear Stark’s unstated commentary–what’s the point of feeling guilty about doing something if you’re still going to do it anyway?

It’s implied she has a boyfriend she’s put on hold for Grofield’s sake, and he’s slightly guilty about that too, but it’s pretty clear she’s just a small town girl who wants to have some good dirty fun with an older more sophisticated man than she normally gets to meet–still figuring out who she is, what she likes, how to best express her ebullient young personality, not to mention her ebullient young libido.  She’s no more serious about this impromptu hook-up than Grofield–she just wants to have some fun.

And fun they are surely having, in the back seat of a Chevy Impala parked by a church and a graveyard.  Nowhere else in all of Westlake’s work under his own name or Stark’s is there a passage that reeks half so much of 60’s era sleaze.  With just a bit of extra oomph to it, which was always Westlake’s specialty when he was writing that stuff under false names–one of which, come to think of it, was Alan.

“Wake up, sweetheart,” Grofield murmured.  “We seem to be having intercourse.”

Her right arm came up to wrap around his head and close off his windpipe, and her hips began to move more strongly.  Clutching with both hands, Grofield gave as good as he got, and the breathing in his right ear became very fast and ragged.

Things went along that way for a while, until suddenly the upper part of the torso reared up, Dori’s astonished face appeared directly in front of Grofield’s eyes, and she cried, in amazement and delight, “Oh!”

“Hello,” he said  His right hand was now partly free; partly to ease the pain in his shoulder, he moved it down and placed it next to his left hand.

Dori was laughing.  She put the heels of her hands against his shoulders, pressing him down into the car seat, and remained with her upper torso straight-armed erect; they were now like Siamese twins, joined from the navel downward.  Laughing and at the same time clenching her face muscles in concentration, she proceeded to bear down, doing things she’d never learned at the library.

Grofield lost track of the church bells, and when he could think about them again, they’d stopped.  Dori had collapsed into his chest, her hair in his nose and her lips against the pulse in his throat.  “Good morning,” he said, and she murmured something contented, and shot bolt upright, her elbow in his neck as she stared in horror out at the sky.

“It’s tomorrow!”

“Not any more,” Grofield said.

She is not prepared to live openly as a wanton woman yet (it may be the 70’s, but it’s also the midwest–Mary Richards may be having all kinds of premarital intercourse over in Minneapolis, but she’s not talking about it afterwards).  Dori clambers all over Grofield, gathering up her clothes, imploring him to get her back home before her absence is noted.  And as she does so, he looks around one last time at their surroundings–a church and a graveyard.

Exactly.  The church, red brick, was off behind the car, and this was the congregation’s burial ground.  Flat land symmetrically lined with weathering tombstones, the symmetry broken by an occasional maple tree or line of hedge.  At some distance ahead, woods started, stretching off toward low hills.  To the right and left, weedy fields separated the graveyard from tracts of small identical houses.

“In the midst of death,” Grofield murmured, “we are in life.”

A bit trite perhaps, but not bad on the spur of the moment.   And mightily prophetic.  I don’t really hate Grofield, but as The Bard had Feste declaim in Twelfth Night, “pleasure will be paid, one time or another.”  Yes, that was foreshadowing–Westlake’s and mine.  And I’d better wrap up now for this week.

Now was that sex scene really necessary?  I’m not asking if you liked it, that’s a different question.  Stark normally wouldn’t bother with the messy details, because he figures we know about the birds and bees already, and he likes to keep things simple.  So why go into such detail here?  I think maybe because this is not merely a summation of everything Westlake had written as Richard Stark to date, but of everything he had written at Random House (meaning he probably did know his association with them was ending here), and much of what he’d written elsewhere–including a lot of dirty books under false names.

Only Stark novels are explicitly referred to, though–and not just the Parkers.  There are references to events from all four Grofields as well–in fact, this novel concludes with a reference to the opening of The Damsel (featuring another nubile and improbably willing young blonde we never heard from again afterwards).  Seventeen books in all are referenced here.

And yet I can’t find any references at all to two of the Parker novels–specifically, The Seventh and The Sour Lemon Score.  Which are widely agreed to be two of the very best of the series–the former is often considered to be Stark’s finest accomplishment.  Correct me if I’m wrong, but I fail to see even the ghost of a hint regarding Parker’s experiences in those books.  Even though it would have taken no more than a few well-placed sentences–less than half a page, in a 306 page book–to make the retrospective complete.  The omission is clearly intentional.

WHY?

More questions to follow, hopefully with answers.

PS: This book inspired some very nice cover art, some of which we’ll be seeing over the next few weeks, courtesy of DonaldWestlake.com.  This week, aside from the Random House first edition, with its spectral image of Parker looming over the Tyler skyline like Heist-zilla, we have the German and Italian first editions, which as we have seen with past books, took the basic idea of the American edition’s cover art, and did their own thing with it.  That way they don’t have to pay for the rights to the original artwork, local artists get to eat, and it all works out nice for everybody.  The German cover is cool, but the Italian–bellissima!

With the exception of some Robert E. McGinnis covers, I think it generally works best when Parker’s face is obscured–so we can all imagine what he looks like.  According to one character in this book, he looks like a regular guy–just a little tougher and meaner than average (bear in mind, this is a gangster’s perspective on what normal looks like).  But I think that’s how he looks when he’s blending in, hiding his true self from the world.  You don’t want to be around when the real Parker looks out from behind the mask.   And if you ever do see behind that mask, you probably won’t be around for much longer.  The moon is waning.  See you next week.

(Part of Friday’s Forgotten Books)

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Filed under Butcher's Moon review, Donald Westlake novels

Review: Hopscotch

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“Our kind has been on this planet for perhaps two million years,” Yaskov said, “and during all but one percent of that period, we lived as hunters.  The hunting way of life is the only one natural to man.  The one most rewarding.  It was your way of life but your government took it away from you.  I offer to return it to you.”

“It’s self-destructive lunacy, is what it is.”

“Well my dear Miles, you can’t lead our kind of life and expect to live forever.  But at least we can be alive for a time.”

“It’s all computers now.   World War Three will be known as the Paperkrieg.  There’s no need for my kind of toy gladiator any more.  We’re as obsolete as fur-trapping explorers.”

“It’s hardly gone that far, old friend.  Otherwise, why should I be making you this offer?”

“Because you can’t face obsolescence–you won’t acknowledge it the way I’ve done.  You’re as redundant as I am–you just don’t know it yet.”  Kendig smiled meaninglessly.  “We’ve seven’d out.  All of us.”

“I don’t know the expression, but you make it sound clear enough.”

“It’s to do with a dice game.”

This is going to be one of my shorter reviews, and it could be argued that I’m violating the mission statement of this blog by posting it at all.  The book being reviewed here was not written by Donald E. Westlake, but rather by his longtime friend, Brian Garfield.   Nor can I pretend to any great familiarity with Garfield’s work.  What happened was, Garfield and Westlake co-wrote the last book I reviewed here, and I felt like I needed to read some Garfield as part of my background research, and this novel was easily available to me, and I kind of wanted to read it anyhow.

What I learned, upon reading it, is that 1)Garfield is a hell of a writer (I’m hardly the first to reach this conclusion) and 2)He was, at least in this instance, very powerfully influenced by Westlake, and specifically by what Westlake wrote as Richard Stark.   And he wasn’t shy about tacitly admitting that in the book itself.   I should perhaps mention that this is the book that won Garfield the Edgar Award for best mystery novel, even though it’s a spy thriller, but we discussed that little oddity of the Edgars when I was reviewing God Save The Mark.

I knew the story going in, or thought I did–I went to see Hopscotch (the movie) shortly after it premiered in 1980, liked it so much I went to see it twice.  It’s long been a favorite of mine.  It’s right at the tail-end of Walter Matthau’s career as a leading man (he was 60 when it came out); probably the last picture he made where he was the unquestioned star, the story entirely about his character, even though Glenda Jackson has a memorable supporting role, and there’s a great cast overall, Sam Waterston, Ned Beatty, etc.  Neat little flick, and you can watch it for free on Hulu, for the price of sitting through a few bad commercials.

And going in with such strongly positive memories of the film, I was amazed at how quickly the book supplanted it in my loyalties.  It’s not that the film’s script (co-written by Garfield) tells such a different story–most major elements of the plot are there, in altered form–but the approach to it is light-hearted, comic, almost innocent–a sort of espionage quadrille.  Which is what they figured they could sell to a mainstream movie audience looking for a nice Matthau comedy, with a bit of a romance hook between him and Jackson (since they’d just done a romantic comedy together a few years before).

The book is none of those things.  It truly is written in the spirit of Richard Stark (as reinterpreted by Brian Garfield) and to the extent there’s any humor in it, it’s very black indeed.  It’s not a quadrille, so much as a tango–a dance of life and death.  It’s romantic all right, but in the same spirit as the Parker novels.  Not at all what Hollywood means by romance.

The film’s score is full of Mozart, with a bit of Rossini mixed in (Matthau, a lifelong fan of Wolfgang Amadeus, can even whistle some of his compositions like a crazed canary), but a score for the novel would be rather more Wagnerian, I think–Götterdämmerung.  Or even better, some delta blues, or New Orleans jazz, the kind they play at funerals– a fair bit of  the story is set in the American South.  Or maybe music would just get in the way.   Because to the extent this novel’s protagonist resembles a Richard Stark protagonist, it sure as hell isn’t Alan Grofield.  He’s not hearing any movie score in his head.

He does go see a movie in the course of the story, though–The Outfit, with Robert Duvall.  He’s just killing some time in the theater, as we sometimes see Parker do on a job; not really interested in the film–he walks out after an hour, as the story is building to its climax, so nobody will notice him leaving–he’s got to use the bathroom to put on a disguise, That’s a very obvious tip of the hat to Stark.  As is his later briefly adopting the alias of Jules Parker.  That’s almost too obvious.

The protagonist’s name is Miles Kendig, and he used to work for the CIA.   He was good–quite possibly the best, though like any good intelligence man, he drew as little attention to himself as possible, which meant that relatively few people knew how good he really was.  Just a handful of fellow pros.   And even they may underestimate him at times.

On a mission to the Balkans, he was badly wounded, nearly killed.  Once he recovered, the higher-ups decided he was past his prime, over the hill (he’s 53 when we first meet him).  They wouldn’t put him in the field anymore–he could ride a desk for a while, if he wanted, or take retirement.  He took the desk–just long enough to expunge his personnel records–when he leaves, they don’t even have a photograph of him, and because of his low profile, only a few people at the Agency could pull him out of a line-up.  He’s a self-made tabula rasa.

As the book opens, he’s retired, playing high stakes poker in Paris, not caring if he wins or loses, and so of course he wins big, as he has before.  The glamorous sophisticated 40-ish European woman who was his primary opponent in the game (Jeanne Moreau, maybe?) picks him up afterwards, and he reluctantly allows himself to be seduced (he’s no fashion plate, he’s mainly not interested, and women are drawn to him like flies to honey–sound familiar?).

He’s also dabbled in fast cars, and other things people to do distract themselves from a purposeless existence.  He’s got money, adventure, sex, freedom, and his health.  And he’s terminally bored.  Without his work, something has died inside him.  He’s trying to find a reason go to on living, and failing, badly.

Then a former adversary of his, a Russian spymaster named Yaskov, makes the proposition referred to in the passage from the novel I kicked this review off with–come work for us–we see your value, even if those fools do not.  And he can’t do it.  Even though the illusions of conventional patriotism have largely been destroyed in him, he can’t go over to the other side.  It’s not who he is.  And since he wouldn’t believe in what he was doing, he’d just be working for the sake of working, going through the motions.  It wouldn’t fix what’s broken in him.

But as he mulls it over, an alternative presents itself.  He can’t ply his trade for his own country anymore, or for any other country, but he can still ply it for himself.  He can issue a challenge–the name of the game is Catch Me If You Can (or Hopscotch, if you prefer).  But first he needs the appropriate bait.  So he starts work on a book.  A book about what he knows.  And he starts sending out pages–to publishers, and to spy agencies.  The pages are full of some very direct and telling hints of what the book’s content will be.

He knows a lot.  More than anyone realized.  This is something the book explains much better than the film–a field agent typically only knows what’s relevant to his work–that way he can only tell so much if he’s captured and tortured.  In the movie, Kendig quit immediately after his boss told him to sit behind a desk (movie plot shorthand)–in the novel, he took that desk job long enough to read a whole lot of very interesting top secret files–and Miles Kendig never forgets anything he reads.

So when his bosses find out what he’s got in mind, various carefully worded threats are issued, which Kendig merely laughs at.  Because what he wants is for them to come after him, with the purpose of killing him.  And by evading them, through the methodical application of a lifetime of training, he can prove he’s the best there is at what he does, and slip the shackles of existential ennui.

Actually revealing the secrets to the world–many of which are explosive in nature, political assassinations and so forth–is not his primary goal.  He isn’t Edward Snowden.  He doesn’t think he can bring about a better freer more transparent world, nor does he have any interest in being lauded as a whistleblower, or put on any Nobel short lists.  He just wants to stop feeling dead inside.  He’s been the hunter for most of his life–now he’ll try being the hunted.

The CIA assigns Kendig’s best pupil, Joe Cutter, to track him down.  Joe picks Leonard Ross, a younger agent, to assist him, since Ross at least knows what Kendig looks like.   Cutter doesn’t like what Kendig is doing, but he understands it, better than anyone else (they’ll be forcing him out too, one of these days).  He isn’t enthusiastic about the prospect of killing his teacher, but he’ll do as he’s ordered.   And Kendig goes out of his way to provoke Cutter, wanting to make sure his protégé gives the job his all.

Now I’d normally launch into a detailed synopsis here, going over the plot with a fine-toothed comb, leaking spoilers all over the carpet, possibly stretching it out into a two-parter, but this is The Westlake Review, not The Garfield Gazette.  I greatly admire this book, but my point is how Garfield, who in a sense became Westlake’s protégé, absorbed the lessons he learned from Westlake’s novels, particularly the Parker novels, and applied them to his own quite distinct purposes.  Not that Stark is the only influence here–there’s a character named Joe Tobin–an FBI agent, called into the hunt when Kendig goes to ground in Georgia to write his book.  Kendig’s deep depression that he’s trying to shake off, along with his nagging conscience, do seem more reminiscent of Tucker Coe than Richard Stark.

There’s also a CIA man named Glenn Follett, and that’s about as glaringly obvious a reference to Ken Follett as one could imagine–except that when this book came out, the internationally best-selling author of espionage thrillers hadn’t had a best seller yet–he’d published only two novels, both quite recently, and wasn’t very well known at all.   Clearly Garfield had him pegged as a comer, and felt like tipping his hat–and yet, we’re left in no doubt that Glenn Follett, though a capable man, is not in the same league as ‘Jules Parker’–there’s a lot of little inside references like this, and you’re not always quite sure what they mean, but they mean something, that’s for damn certain.   As with Westlake, the inside jokes are there for those able to appreciate them.

The book switches back and forth between chapters from Kendig’s perspective, watching him play his deadly game with deadly calm, moving around, creating false identities, laying false trails for the hunters, always a few steps ahead of the hounds–and chapters from the perspective of Cutter and Ross and the other people hunting Kendig.  Including Yaskov, because once the Soviets realize how much information Kendig has, they’re desperate to lay hands on him–and then, once they realize that he’s compromising them almost as much as the Americans, they just want him dead as much as the CIA does.

And this, of course, is very Starkian as well, but Stark didn’t invent the idea of switching perspectives in fiction (don’t ask me who did).  The book isn’t broken up into four parts–it’s not that direct an homage.  The idea is the same, though–to contrast Kendig’s mentality with that of his pursuers.  Only Cutter and Yaskov (and eventually Ross) come close to fully understanding him, but because they’re all organization men–cogs in a machine, whether they like it or not–they can’t ever fully understand a man who has decided to cut all ties, be totally free.  One does get the feeling they envy him, though.

Yaskov, the wily old Russian, who Cutter observes would have just as happily been a czarist spy if he’d been born a few generations sooner (what difference, really?), arranges a meet with Cutter and Ross, to swap intel on Kendig–and makes this rather trenchant remark to Cutter, that as you might imagine, perked my ears right up–

“Kendig and I are among the last of the old wolves,” Yaskov said, “but perhaps there’s still hope.  I’m told you conform to the breed more than most of our colleagues.”

Hmm.   I wonder sometimes about conversations Westlake had with his closest comrades about the nature of Parker, and what might have been said in these discussions.   Or left unsaid, while remaining implicit.

I’m barely giving the flavor of the book–most of the major plot points made it into the film, but in very altered form–the way they play out in the book is so different as to constitute an entirely different story, and there are some fascinating things that didn’t get into the film at all–like Kendig finding a double of himself, a down on his luck American, and paying him to impersonate Kendig, for a hefty fee–which the man does with considerable pleasure, and surprising skill.

The ploy doesn’t really fool Cutter, who knows Kendig too well, but resources are still expended to track the impostor down on an ocean liner.  I suspect the point of that episode isn’t to display Kendig’s resourcefulness, but to make a very Westlakeian comment about identity.  The double–a secret sharer, you might say–had lost himself in the wake of a bad marriage, and now, by pretending to be a fugitive secret agent, seems to have rediscovered his own agency in life.

Kendig doesn’t kill one person in this novel (he doesn’t even like to carry a gun), and goes out of his way to make sure no one is killed because of him.  That is not much like Parker, or even Grofield.  And this is Garfield’s variation on the theme–Kendig isn’t really a wolf in human form, you see.  He’s very much a man, who had to become like a wolf, to do his job.  We learn about his forlorn search for his long-lost father, who died poor and alone just before Kendig located him–the experience left lasting scars, that impacted all the choices he made afterwards, and he begins to understand that as the story builds to its conclusion.

Kendig has very understandable human goals and aspirations, and a very human form of melancholia, and yet at the end, he seems ready to really live again, maybe even love, without the stimulus of having trained killers on his trail night and day.  But for that to happen, he has to shake those killers once and for all, and maybe you should read the book.  Or you can watch the movie, which has its own unique pleasures to impart (and a character who isn’t in the book at all–a rather kick-ass London-based publisher named–I kid you not–Parker Westlake). But seriously–read the book first.   I wish I had.

Garfield has Cutter think to himself at one point that he’s glad he played poker with Kendig–it’s his opinion that there’s no better way to understand your rival.  Or your friend.  And in writing this book, Garfield proved he understood them both very well.  His old poker buddy, Donald E. Westlake–and his rival, Richard Stark.  (I don’t think Garfield ever really did much in the comic caper area after Gangway!, though he was perhaps taking a few pointers when co-writing the script for the film adaptation–and he and Westlake would later collaborate on a film, but that one is decidedly not a comedy).

Garfield’s interest in espionage and those who practice that dark art continues to this very day, not always in the form of fiction   He’s got a new book out about Richard Meinertzhagen, a legendary adventurer, who may have been an even more legendary con artist.  I hope to get around to it soon.

But now, I have to prepare myself for what may be the biggest challenge of my book-blogging career to date.   Miles Kendig, as I have already mentioned, is not so terribly hard to understand.  But Parker is, and our next book–the 16th Parker novel, and the last to appear in print for a very long time–is just one identity puzzle after another–frequently reviewed, but never in any great depth, that I can see.  I must warn you in advance, I have no idea how long this one is going to go–I very much doubt a two-parter will suffice, and I would not rule out a four-parter.  We’ll play the hand we’re dealt, and see how the cards stack up.

And now a little music to set the mood.  I was thinking about Bad Moon Rising, but that’s a bit too on the nose, don’t you think?

Any Rory Gallagher fans in the house?  He was always a million miles away from all the rest.

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Filed under Brian Garfield, Hopscotch, Parker Novels

Review: Deadly Edge

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Jessup was half-good, which is the other side of being half-assed.  He knew how to do some things right but he wasn’t careful enough, he didn’t follow through on the reasons for doing this or that or the other.  He would be one of those people who live their lives as a movie, in which they star and direct and write the story.  That kind goes for drama, like traveling with a Manny.  Or the way they  handled Keegan.  Or what they did to Claire with Morris’ body.  And a man like that won’t crawl across a floor to a doorway, not if his life depends on it.

That was the edge Parker had; he knew that survival was more important than heroics.  It isn’t how you play the game, it’s whether you win or lose.

Up to now, the Parker novels were all paperback originals, that never saw a hardcover edition, and could be found at newsstands, drug stores, and other places cheap tawdry books were sold.  No coincidence that in Adios, Scheherazade, Westlake had an alternate universe version of Stark, named Rod Cox (who has a contract with a paperback house called ‘Silver Stripe’) appear as the now-successful author who started out doing near-porn, and is farming out his pseudonym.  The joke there is that Rod isn’t really respectable either.  Respectable authors get published in hardcover, then reprinted in paperback.   The crime paperbacks are right next to the smut at the newsstand.

Westlake had stopped publishing books under his own name at Random House, because he’d signed on with Simon & Schuster–but only as Westlake.   As Tucker Coe, he’d continued to publish books for their hardcover mystery division.  Now Richard Stark would join Coe there.  The Grofield novels written as Stark had already seen hardcover publication at MacMillan’s Cock Robin mystery division–which come to think of it, is probably one reason why the first three Grofields weren’t heist stories.   The typical Stark narrative didn’t fit the publishing niche.

But Westlake obviously continued to maintain professional ties with his first major publisher, and somehow it was arranged for Parker to come over there, as his relationship with Gold Medal fizzled out, along with the market for paperback originals.  That deliciously lurid era of publishing was coming to a close.  Parker and his ilk would need to find alternative venues for their exploits.

Please note that Deadly Edge was not, like most prior Westlake novels for this publisher, referred to as a ‘Random House Mystery’ on the cover.  It doesn’t seem to have been put out specifically by the mystery division there.  It’s just a novel published by Random House.  Unknown whether Lee Wright, the Random House editor Westlake most esteemed, was involved with it, though if it was up to him, she surely would have been.

Most houses were reorganizing themselves at this time, as the business changed, so maybe this wasn’t such an issue anymore.   But this isn’t labeled a mystery, nor is it from some peripheral imprint of a large house–this is a mainstream book from a mainstream publisher (the mainstream publisher).  It isn’t a paperback original, so it’s not being specifically marketed to men, as crime paperbacks invariably were.  Hardcover mysteries, as Westlake said, were marketed more to women, but this isn’t a mystery either, in the conventional sense.  So what audience is it aiming for?

Westlake, and presumably Wright (if she was involved) would know that Parker’s fanbase was a great deal more diverse than might have been thought.  Women did read Parker novels (and still do).  Men weren’t going to stop buying them just because they were hardcovers and you had to go into a real bookstore to buy one (horrors).

And leaving the gender issues aside, the times they are a’ changin–and Parker has at times seemed to be operating in a dimension where the 1930’s never ended, and Dillinger is still Public Enemy #1 (while somehow Parker never makes the list at all).

This worked because Parker himself is so clearly oblivious to social changes that don’t directly impact the way he does business.  For example, he knows that the electronic transfer of funds is becoming more and more prevalent, because it’s harder and harder to find large amounts of cash that aren’t too well guarded to heist, which makes him more likely to take a risk on an unconventional score if there’s a lot of cash involved.  He may notice men’s clothing just enough so that he can dress himself without standing out in a crowd.  Most changes in the world around him are just surface noise, irrelevant to his profession, therefore ignored.

But for the reader, there’s an increasing dissonance to the way Parker lives and lets die in this ever-changing world in which we live in–meaning that maybe it’s time for that to change.  For example, maybe it’s time for him to stop living in hotels all year ’round–give him a base of operations, something more down to earth.  And maybe the way the books are written, the style itself, has to be updated a bit.  Without losing everything that makes the books unique.  And maybe Parker himself has to be updated slightly, but that’s going to be harder.   That’s going to take some real finesse.   Can Stark do finesse?

One thing that clearly had to be updated was the depiction of organized crime.  Mario Puzo’s The Godfather was published in 1969, and while the mob has never been 100% Italian (crime is everybody’s thing), to show it as anything other than Italian-run was just not going to be credible anymore, and certainly not in an urban setting.  Parker had done extremely well against the seemingly WASP and Irish dominated organization known as The Outfit (which would be shown to still exist on some level), but could he hack it in the world of La Cosa Nostra?  In three of the next four books, he’d be given a chance to prove he could.

This book would have been written around the same time as the final Grofield outing, Lemons Never Lie, and shares a fair few plot points with it.  In both books we see the protagonist in an unconventional domestic setting with his female companion of choice, and in both cases he’s got to leave that domestic scene to take care of business, leaving his woman undefended.  But Parker is not Grofield, and things arrange themselves quite differently in most respects.

The first real change is that the book opens right at the start of a heist, which neither Stark nor Westlake had ever done before (though Jim Thompson had, in The Getaway).  None of the novels had opened with the classic “When such and such happened, Parker did something” riff since The Handle in ’66, none would again until Comeback in ’97, but the opening to this one in ’71 is radically different, not even mentioning Parker’s name or describing any significant action until the second paragraph.  That had never happened before, and it never happened again–in all prior and subsequent novels, Parker is there in the very first sentence.  Doing stuff.

Parker is working with a solid string of pros, guys we haven’t seen before, and they’re standing on the roof of an old theater, the Civic Auditorium in an unnamed city, which is going to be demolished soon, part of an urban renewal program–change is in the air, literally–they can feel the vibrations of a rock concert going on below them, and as they cut their way through the roof, the music gets louder and louder.

Their objective is the box office take, all in cash, because of the impending switch-over to the new theater.   Ticketron had gotten started a few years earlier–a lot fewer people buying their tickets right there at the theater on the day of the concert, but they have no choice this time, and it’s a big concert, featuring several popular bands.   Not the first time Parker has come into contact with rock&roll–remember Paul Brock’s little record store in the Village, in The Sour Lemon Score?–but this is the first real acknowledgement that rock is now the dominant musical form, something that Westlake the jazz buff must have had mixed emotions about.

Since Parker cares nothing for music, Stark expresses that conflict through the other members of the string.  There’s Keegan, the capable but nervous and pessimistic electrical expert, Briley, the lanky affable Tennessean, and Morris, youngest of the group–a member of the rock generation, who would probably be going to see this concert if he wasn’t in the process of robbing it.

Keegan and Briley get into a bit of a musical debate as they make their way down through the breached roof into the building, and the music keeps getting louder.

“Listen to that music,” Keegan said peevishly.  “What the hell ever happened to jazz?”

“It’s still there,” Briley said, going over to the filing cabinets, “in the same gin mills it always was.  When did jazz ever play a joint like this?”

“Jazz at the Phil,” Keegan said.  “I used to have all those records, before that time I got sent up.”

“Jazz at the Phil,” Briley said scornfully.  “Fake.”  He opened a file drawer.  “Empty!  There’s a break.”

“What do you mean, fake?  All the greats were on Jazz at the Phil.”

“Okay,” Briley said.  “Give us a hand here, will you?”

Keegan went over to help him move the filing cabinet.  “I don’t know how you can call them a fake.  My God!  Lester Hawkins, Dizzy Gillespie, Johnny Hodges–”

“I guess you’re right,” Briley said, grinning.  “I must have been thinking of something else.”

(Keegan isn’t quite the jazz maven he thinks he is–he’s conflating Lester Young and Coleman Hawkins, both of whom participated in the Jazz at the Philharmonic concerts and recordings produced by Norman Granz, which many an old school purist did sniff at, but which remain brilliant records to this day.  Westlake, who probably had all those records himself, knows full well that the kvetchy Keegan made a mistake–maybe Briley does too, and doesn’t want to rile his partner in crime up any more.  That’s a real inside baseball joke, and just the kind of thing Westlake loved to do–there for the people sharp enough to spot it–and I missed it the first time I read this one, so some maven I am).

Part One of the book is nothing but the heist, and it’s a good one, offbeat yet believable, very much in the now, no sense of anachronism, except to the extent that Parker himself is an anachronism, and always has been.  Not truly a part of any era he might find himself in.  The guns he and his colleagues are using are quite contemporary by contrast–three Smith & Wesson Model 39’s, which went on the market in 1955, and were still being used by U.S. Navy SEALs.  Parker atypically hangs onto his after the job is done, for reasons we’ll get to shortly.

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The job goes smoothly, with just a few minor wrinkles.  Nobody gets hurt, and they score a decent haul, nothing amazing–about 16g’s a man.  Stark heisters tend to be percentage players.  Still and all, according to an inflation calculator I just checked, sixteen thousand dollars then had almost the same purchasing power as one hundred thousand dollars today.  And lest we forget, tax free.  Parker’s presumably still submitting a tax return, but he’s not reporting this income.

He’s still caching part of his split, and bringing the rest back to Claire.  It’s been about four years since the events of The Jugger forced him to start over from scratch–that matches up with what we’re told in Lemons Never Lie–obviously, since they were written around the same time.

Anyway, Part One is just prologue.  This one isn’t really about the heist itself.  None of Parker’s colleagues try to pull a cross, they have no troubles with the law, they get back to the hideout and divide the loot four ways, and after waiting a few days for things to calm down, they all head off to spend their ill-gotten gains.

There’s just one complication–a fifth man, Berridge, opted out of the job at the last minute, supposedly because he’d decided he was too old to hack it in the heisting world anymore.  But there he is at the hideout–dead.  Somebody killed him, and it wasn’t a clean job. His head was caved in with a wrench.  This isn’t a murder mystery.  So they don’t try to solve the murder.  But maybe they should have.

Part Two picks up with Parker meeting Claire at a house she’s just purchased for them in Northwestern New Jersey.   It’s on a small lake called Colliver Pond, and is located within a few miles of the borders of New York State and Pennsylvania, which means it has to be in Sussex County.  Not a lot of people are familiar with that part of the state.   It’s very rural, quite remote, even though it’s less than a hundred miles from Manhattan.  Pretty country–not the part of the state I grew up in (see my review of The Man With the Getaway Face), but I’ve spent a little time there.  Lot of black bears in Sussex.  No wolves, up to now.

Claire is feeling the nesting impulse.  She’s tired of swanky hotels in Florida and New Orleans and such.  It’s been fun, they can still do it sometimes, but she wants a place of her own–security (Parker might not come back someday, and then what?).  She’s taken Parker’s peculiar needs into account–two state lines nearby–little in the way of local law–the houses around the lake are mainly summer homes, so there are few people around most of the year–they can go somewhere else in the summer.   Probably gets damn cold in the winter, but that won’t be a problem.   She makes that point quite adequately when she joins Parker in the shower.

This is the last book to feature Claire as a major POV character, and to get into her head to any great extent.  It’s definitely the most ‘domestic’ of the Parkers, and I have to think this is at least partly because of the assumption (accurate or not) that more women would be reading Parker novels now that they were in hardcover, so you had to make him seem like a better boyfriend (though I suspect many if not most female Parker fans are identifying with him, not Claire).  At one point, talking to him on the phone she thinks “His voice is very dear to me”–possibly the first person to ever react to his voice that way.   She’s not quite the same kind of fantasy she was before.  She is, for all intents and purposes, his wife.  At least in her mind.

Parker’s mind is harder to plumb, as always.  He’s being as accommodating as he can with Claire, making a conscious effort to appear interested in the house, genuinely pleased at how much thought she put into it, but it’s impossible for him to think of any structure, any geographic location, as home.   To the extent he has a home, she’s it.

He is compelled, as we have seen, to have a woman he can go back to after a job–a mate.  He doesn’t stay with any one woman very long in the first eight books–not after Lynn betrayed him.  Claire represented a return to his old pattern, but it’s not the same as it was with Lynn.  He thinks to himself here that Lynn was hard, but she broke–Claire isn’t hard, but he believes she won’t break–more resilient, more intelligent, more adaptable.

He couldn’t handle being a free agent indefinitely; it was too destabilizing, too far from his instinctive drives.   Does he love her?   We’ve been over this before.  If a wolf can love, Parker loves Claire.  And there’s considerable evidence wolves can love.  But not as we do.  Perhaps that’s too bad for us.  Stark clearly thinks so.

Claire has up to now avoided getting too sentimental about their relationship as well, but now that she’s got a house to wait for him in (purchased with the proceeds of his heists), the relationship has progressed for her.  She doesn’t mind him being away, we’re told, because it’s pleasurable to think about him coming back, in his usual post-heist state of sexual excitement.  She’s got her own domain now.  Once he steps into the house, and then leaves, it’s really hers.  She’s invested in it–maybe a little too invested.

Parker gets a call from Handy McKay a few days after his return–Handy had gotten some panicked-sounding phone calls from Keegan–something’s wrong, and he needs to talk to Parker directly, but he can’t leave a number because he’s on the move.  Impressed by the sense of urgency he heard in the man’s voice, Handy gave Keegan the number of Claire’s house, which could be used to obtain its location.   But Keegan never called.  Parker has to go find out what’s going on (as he did when Joe Sheer wrote him in The Jugger).  He wants Claire to go stay at a hotel in New York until he comes back.

And she won’t go.  She’s just found this place, and she can’t abandon it.  Her instinctive drives are as strong as his, and they’re telling her she has to stay.  Parker doesn’t like it, but his drives are telling him to get on the trail before the scent goes cold.  As she watches him leave, Claire wonders if women are as much a mystery to men as men are to women–she still hasn’t quite come to terms with who–and what–she’s living with.

The rest of Part Two is Parker traveling, finding Keegan not merely dead, but nailed to the wall–he’d clearly been tortured by somebody who is really into torture (I’m tempted to make a Cheney joke, but never mind).  Knowing now that there’s a real problem, Parker tries once more, over the phone, to get Claire to pull up stakes and leave the house, before whoever is tracking down the concert heisters one by one makes it to Colliver Pond.  She just won’t do it.  He’s frustrated, and in his own unemotive way, worried.   He tells her to remove any vestige of his presence from the house, and if anybody comes looking for him, say she’s just his answering service.

He goes looking for Briley, and in the process runs into a small branch of the Italian mob–their first real appearance in the series.  Somebody looking for Briley killed a woman who ran a mob brothel, and the local capo wants Parker to help them find whoever did it–Parker says he works alone.  He doesn’t always, of course, but it would take too long to explain, and you know how much he hates explanations.

The boss puts a tail on him.   He lures them into a trap, disables their car, leaves them there.  They say he’ll never get away with it; they’re national, and he’s just one guy.  He’s heard that song before.  He’ll be hearing it again before long.

When the mobsters pat him down for weapons, we find out Parker sometimes carries a knife in a sheath on his back–he can reach back for it and throw it, often hitting the target–a neat trick, if somebody has a gun on you and makes you put your hands behind your head.   We never actually see him do this, but his knife-throwing skills factor pretty heavily into the next book, and Westlake wanted to set that up in advance.

Parker finds Briley dying–he offers no assistance, not that there’s anything he could do–and he finds something else–evidence of drug use by at least one of the people who killed Briley.   These are not your typical old school pros.  They’re effective, dangerous, unconventional–but sloppy.  Amateurs.  Again with the amateurs.

After he leaves Briley, still breathing but basically dead, Parker goes to a nearby diner, and calls Claire.  She answers him very formally, addresses him as Mr. Parker.   He gets the message.   They’ve arrived.

Part Three is all Claire and the longest time we’ve spent in any character’s mind other than Parker’s since the early days of the series.  The structure is different here–in the past, Part Three was usually switching from one character to another, chapter by chapter, and then we’re back inside Parker’s head for Part Four.  Here we stick with Claire the whole way.  It’s her show, and she’s not enjoying it much.

In the days following Parker’s departure, she whiles away the time in her new domicile, enjoying the life she’s found for herself, the secret heister’s moll–it’s a great fantasy.   Nobody around her knows her secret–just going out to dinner with Parker is a thrill.   Nobody knows she’s involved with one of the most dangerous men on the planet.   Does she?  Yes and no.  She can be very honest with herself at times, very self-deceptive at others–it’s a coping mechanism.   We all have them.

After Parker calls her, and she refuses to leave, she sets out to prepare herself for whoever might be showing up–she increasingly realizes, as Parker knew all along, that your typical country home, full of doors and windows, is not easy to defend.

She buys a hunting rifle, and teaches herself how to use it–it’s the ladies home edition of the type of outfitting we see Parker do all the time–unlike Parker, she can just walk into a sporting goods store and buy a gun.  She also tries to get a dog, but there are none for sale right now who would be any use as guardians.  We hear her thinking she’d love to get a puppy and train it–that would have been interesting, if she’d gone through with it–how would the dog react to Parker?  How would Parker react to the dog?  We’ll never know.

Did Westlake ever have the “Let’s get a dog” discussion with any of his wives?   By this time he was living out in the country himself, and then he’d be traveling for work, and of course it would come up, and he wouldn’t want to say “I don’t want a dog because they scare me.”  He’d see the logic behind having one–even a friendly dog is a deterrent to most burglars, and I know it was one reason my dad got us a dog when I was growing up–he traveled a lot.   Westlake frequently mentions that people who live out in the country keep dogs for protection.   But it’s pretty clear the Westlakes never had one, and neither will Claire.

She gets back to the house, walks in, and then realizes she’s not alone.  There’s this weird-looking vaguely hippie-ish man on the couch, who is apparently tripping out.  Then she turns around and there’s another one–also dressed a bit wild, with his hair frizzed out like an Afro, wearing a fringed leather jacket.  The guy on the couch is Manny.  The other one is Jessup.   It’s really hard to say which is worse.

This is not a book about psychotic hippies.  That’s just to give it a more contemporary spin.  There’s no attempt by Stark to get into their heads, tell us anything much about their past, why they dress like that, who they are.  Claire and Parker will have to try and understand them, but only for the purposes of survival.  Westlake probably had his reservations about the counter-culture, but he’d dealt with it sympathetically in the past, and would again later.

The real point of these guys isn’t what subculture they’re from–it’s that they are amateurs who don’t know where to draw the line, or that any line exists.  They smell money, and they want it.  They don’t care what they have to do to get it.  They don’t care who they hurt.  They have a certain loyalty to each other, and they don’t think of themselves as bad guys, but real bad guys never do.  In some ways, they’re like Parker, but without the self-knowledge, or the self-control.  Claire compares both of them to wild animals in her mind, but the only animal that ever behaves like these guys is homo sapiens sapiens.

Jessup in particular feels familiar–we’ve seen variations on this guy in the past.  Matt Rosenstein in The Sour Lemon Score, who was sort of in Parker’s subculture, but not really–only half a pro–he enjoyed the violence too much.  His physical description is very reminiscent of Bruce Maundy from A Jade in Aries–I’m guessing these characters are all based on somebody from Westlake’s past–you know how Michelangelo put some guy whose guts he really hated in hell on the Sistine Chapel ceiling?  Like that.

So Claire plays the role Parker instructed her to play–she knows nothing, she’s just the answering service.  She’s just a little mouse, as she puts it.  She’s had to deal with dangerous men before.  Jessup takes a good look at her, and rape is in his mind, but she gets it out by fooling him into thinking she’s got some exotic kind of clap.  For which he gives her a morally disapproving look–like I said, no self-awareness at all.   There are so many people like this in the world, you wouldn’t believe it.  Or maybe you would.

Manny is much more abstracted than Jessup.  Well to put it another way, he’s nuts.  He wants Claire to play a game called ‘Surrealism’–there are actually a lot of mind games associated with that artistic movement, but Manny seems to have come up with his own, where you pick a famous person, and then guess what kind of car they’d be, and like that.  Manny can go from childish delight to fiendish rage in a heartbeat, so she has to step lightly.

So she plays the various games as best she can with these two guys, and when Parker calls, she lets him know what’s going on, without alerting Jessup (the brains of the outfit, such as they are).   She hopes he’s not too far off.

They’re sitting down to a sort of pseudo-Mexican dinner Jessup cooked up, when the doorbell rings–it’s Morris.  You remember–the young member of the string–the rocker.  They’ve been looking for him, but he found them first.  Only he’s not quite sure at first who they are.  He sits down at the table with them–Claire can’t tell him anything without admitting she’s not who she’s been claiming to be–and he tells them a story.

Turns out Berridge had a grandson, who had a friend, and they found out about the money.  Berridge refused to help them, and they killed him.  Then they followed Keegan, and he gave them enough leads to find the others, except for Morris.  Only see, they thought there was a lot more than there actually was–they didn’t believe Keegan when he said all he had was 16 grand.  No sense of real-world limitations.

And just as Morris decides yeah, these are the guys, and draws down on them–well, he waited a bit too long.  They get the jump on him, and good-bye Morris.

And as Part Three concludes, Claire, having barricaded herself in the bedroom, is realizing she’s got no more cards to play–she’s witnessed them commit a murder.   They are not going to let her live.  They probably wouldn’t have anyway.  They trick her into emptying her rifle into Morris’ dead body on the porch.  Then they break in and grab her.

But then it’s Part Four, and you know what that means.  Parker’s here.  We see the last few hours from his perspective–he stole a rowboat on the other side of the lake, and came across quietly.   He gets there just as Jessup and Manny break into Claire’s room–and he puts a bullet in Manny’s arm.  It’s not hard to freak out guys like this–they’re both cowards, as Claire contemptuously tells Parker–their nerve tends to fail at critical moments.

They run for their car–a Corvette, so either they stole it or they’ve been spending Keegan’s money damn fast–and try to get the hell out of Dodge.  But Parker shoots out a few of their tires, so they can’t get far.  He’s ready to end this.  They’ve triggered that itch in his head that he can only scratch by killing whoever caused it.

Claire fills Parker in, and her information, combined with what he’s already learned, gives him insight into how these guys think.  Enough to track them to an empty house nearby.  Where he finds Manny tripping out again (of course).  He creeps upstairs, through the darkened boarded-up house, lit up by one candle stuck in a wine bottle.  He’s got to be careful how he disposes of them–he doesn’t want to leave blood on the floor if he can help it–nothing that might trigger alarm bells with the local law.  He wants to kill these men in such a way as that nobody will ever connect their deaths to Colliver Pond.

So Parker has to use his hands–he finds Jessup in the dark, and begins to throttle the life out of him–but Manny, alerted by Jessup’s screams, comes in with a tiny .22 pistol, and tells him to stop.  Jessup is half-dead by then, desperately in need of medical attention, so Parker tells Manny he’s going to need Parker to carry Jessup to the car, and drive him to the doctor.  Without Jessup to think for him, Manny is easy to fool.  But still cagey enough to sit in the back, with the gun pointed at Parker’s head.

Now Parker has to get them just a few miles away from there, so some other police department will be dealing with their corpses.   Jessup comes to, and starts whispering to Manny through his badly damaged larynx–he knows Parker was doing more damage to his throat, even as he was carrying Jessup down to the car.  He knows what’s coming, but it’s already too late.   Parker is driving too fast.   Shoot him, they all die.   He makes it to a turn-off on the highway, and then into a construction site, and then he leaps from the speeding car, which collides with a tractor.

Parker’s legs are bruised, but he’s otherwise unhurt.  And still armed.  Manny never thought to take his gun.   How have these two clowns made it this far?  Jessup is out of the car, firing at him, and there’s a brief stalemate.  That ends when Manny starts shrieking like the damned.  Between his wounded arm and the crash, he’s in too much pain–he took a huge dose of the hallucinogenic drug he’s been using.  His mind is collapsing on itself.   And Jessup can’t take it.  As twisted as their friendship might be, it’s all he’s got, and as Parker already knew, he lives for the drama.  He runs out into the open to help his partner.  And Parker shoots him.  Then Manny.  At this point, it’s the merciful thing to do.   Not that mercy is even remotely the point.

He gets a ride back to Colliver Pond from a friendly farmer.  He tells Claire they won’t be back.  She knows what that means.  She isn’t exactly glad, but she’s not the least bit sorry.  Knowing the monsters are dead, she beckons to the far more terrible monster she lives with to join her on the couch, by the fire.  The monster does so, and stares moodily into the flames.  Thinking surprisingly human thoughts.  He wishes she hadn’t turned the lights off, and lit that fire.  It reminds him of the candle light in the dark house he found Manny and Jessup in.  But he knows she meant it to be romantic, so he lets it go.  He can be flexible.  She’s worth it to him.  She’s all the home he’ll ever have.

It’d be interesting to compare this book with Ripley Under Ground, the second book of the so-called ‘Ripliad’, which was published about a year before Deadly Edge.  It’s barely possible Westlake read it before writing his radically different blue collar take on the same basic story.  I kind of doubt he did–timing’s a bit close–and yet–the American edition was published by (wait for it)–Random House.  Anyway, it’d be interesting to make the comparison, but I haven’t read any of the Ripleys yet (been saving them for a rainy day).  I’ll do a Westlake/Highsmith piece one of these days.  Going to have to, eventually.

Parker isn’t like Ripley–that much I know.  Ripley needs to own things–he got started on his life of crime because of that desire to possess.   He does want a home, a sense of place, culture, to make up for a certain blankness within himself.  Parker has no such desires.  Blankness is his natural state of being, except when he’s working (or with Claire, playing).  The house is just a house to him.  He could walk away from it without a backward glance, but Claire couldn’t. She’s lived there like five minutes, and it’s already a part of her.

As soon as Parker goes to hunt down Jessup and Manny, she starts cleaning it–to make it hers again.  Before he does anything else, she makes him get rid of Morris’ body.  It isn’t that she’s weak.   It’s that she’s hanging onto something–something she desperately needs.  And he doesn’t understand that need at all.  He never could.

The book is about this dichotomy in their natures, and yet, as Parker muses, with those rare flashes of what might be called empathy that we get from him now and then, he can see that it’s not entirely different from the way he gets sometimes–the way he does things that make no sense in certain situations.

He looked at her, and understood vaguely that there was something in her head about the idea of home that wasn’t in his head and never would be.  The world could go to hell if it wanted, but she would put her home in order again before thinking about anything else.

He tried to find something in his own mind to relate that to, so he could understand it better, and the only thing he came up with was betrayal.  If someone double-crossed him in a job, tried to take Parker’s share of the split, or betray him to the law, everything else became unimportant until he had evened the score.  And like the two tonight, Manny and Jessup; there was no way that Parker was not going to settle with them for the insult of their attack.  In some way, what Claire was into now had to be something like that, with a sense of home instead of a sense of identity.

Identity.  It always comes down to that in a Westlake novel, but the word itself appears only rarely in his books, as if he’s trying to hide the central theme of his work from us, make us work for it.  And yet here he’s putting it into the head of his most nonverbal and uncommunicative protagonist.  Perhaps because he was, in a sense, reintroducing Parker here, to the new world of ‘respectable’ hardcover publishing, and he felt the need to make things a little more clear than usual.  Or perhaps because as Mary makes Grofield more three-dimensional in Lemons Never Lie, Claire makes Parker just a bit more human. But underneath, he’s still the same predator he was before.

At one point, she compares him to a gorilla–to which he responds “Gorillas have mates.”  Yes, but they don’t hunt.  Wolves do.  And are hunted in return, by men.  And in the next book in the queue, Parker finds himself hunted as never before.  But the hunters in that book don’t know their quarry at all, and it will cost them dearly.  Forget ‘Surrealism.’  Parker is the most dangerous game of all.

(Very belated postscript–Wikipedia gave me a bum steer–the first edition of Ripley Under Ground was published by Doubleday, not Random House.  One of the few major houses Westlake never worked with (I don’t think they even reprinted any of his books).  So the odds of his getting a sneak peek are very poor, making the timing very close indeed for Westlake to have been influenced by it.  I’ve read the Ripley book now, and the differences are a lot more striking than the similarities.   However, there’s this one scene–involving a hung effigy–that makes me wonder if I was right after all.  And I’m still a long way off from writing that Westlake/Highsmith piece.  But if Westlake did read Ripley Under Ground before writing Deadly Edge, it would be no more plagiarism than Bach doing a variation on a theme by Vivaldi doing a variation on a theme by Bach doing a variation on etc.–and yes, in this analogy, Westlake is Bach.  There’s nothing insulting about being compared to Vivaldi.)

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Filed under Donald Westlake novels, Parker Novels

Review: Lemons Never Lie

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Grofield heard the interest in Tebelman’s voice, and was tempted to go into a whole explanation about being an actor in a pre-technological sense–he had the feeling Tebelman’s attitudes would be basically similar–but something about the presence of Barnes, his cigarette a red dot in the darkness, inhibited him.  Barnes, he knew, was the more typical heister; a professional with only this one profession, who found all his satisfactions, financial and otherwise, within the one area.  Tebelman was the only other person like himself Grofield had ever met in this business.

And Tebelman’s question was hanging in the darkness, awaiting an answer.  More conscious of Barnes’ presence than he would have been in a lighted room where he could see the man, Grofield said, “I’m an actor.  I own a summer theater.”

“Isn’t there money in that?”

“Hardly.  Not with movies and television.”

“Ah.” There was a little silence, then, until Tebelman said, “You know, there’s a school of thought that says the artist and the criminal are variants on the same basic personality type.  Did you know that?”

Grofield was sorry now the conversation had gotten started at all.  “No, I didn’t,” he said.

“That art and crime are both antisocial acts,” Tebelman said.  “There’s a whole theory about it.  The artist and the criminal both divorce themselves from society by their life patterns, they both tend to be loners, they both tend to have brief periods of intense activity and then long periods of rest.  There’s a lot more.”

“Interesting,” Grofield said.

Obviously, when I started Lemons Never Lie, I had no idea it would be the last appearance of Alan Grofield, who had ridden shotgun in six Parker novels, The Score, The Handle, Slayground, Deadly Edge, Plunder Squad and Butcher’s Moon, as well as taking the wheel himself three other times, in The Damsel, The Dame and The Blackbird. He was good company, and then he went away.

I’d brought him aboard in the first place to try to lighten up Parker, which was clearly not going to happen. Still, might Parker find the need for his presence again, some time down the road? Don’t ask me.

What pleases me most about Lemons Never Lie is that it was the only time I can think of where I invented a plot structure. That structure, which is not an arc but three bounces, each one higher, was new, I believe. And Alan Grofield was the perfect unruffled guy to do it. Enjoy. ~DEW

I don’t know when or for what Westlake wrote that squib about how he didn’t know Lemons Never Lie would be the last Grofield novel.  I snipped that from the Official Westlake Blog, and it reads like a hastily written introduction for a paperback reprint, but I don’t really know.  I know it must have been quite a few years after he wrote the book, because he says it’s Grofield’s last appearance (which it isn’t) and that Grofield appears in Deadly Edge and Plunder Squad (which he doesn’t).   I have to keep reminding myself what I wrote on this blog a few months ago, so hardly surprising.

I’d assume he wrote that brief commentary after he’d started producing Parker novels again in the late 90’s, and was still figuring out how to make the four decade old series feel current and credible.   An alternate universe version of Grofield (who had sold out and become a prosperous star of film and TV) periodically appeared in the Dortmunder books.  Grofield never appeared in a Stark novel after Butcher’s Moon.  Maybe Westlake just felt the concept of an actor/heister committing armed robberies under the same (very uncommon) name that he acted under made no sense anymore in the Information Age that even Parker was just barely making out in.

So this is the last Grofield novel–it wasn’t planned as such, doesn’t read as such, and yet somehow it kind of works as such.  A sort of summing up, you might say. It’s very different than the previous three, not least in that it isn’t a sequel to a Parker novel (like The Damsel and The Dame) nor does it share an opening scene with a Parker novel (like The Blackbird).

Nor is it set in some exotic foreign clime.  Nor does it have a title referring to a female character.  Nor does it put Grofield into some situation he isn’t familiar with, referring to a different genre of fiction, such as mystery or espionage.  Nor does Grofield sleep with some beautiful stranger in this book–he does get it on with a hot brunette, but as the punchline goes ‘That was no lady, that was my wife.’   And turns out she really is some lady.

It does, like the others, refer to Parker, remind us of Grofield’s connection to him (there’s even a brief cameo by Handy McKay).  Westlake was well aware of the fact that Grofield had not developed much of an independent fanbase, and that Grofield’s readership was, in the main, a subset of Parker’s.

Perhaps the most noteworthy thing about the book is that it actually shows Grofield working in the theater–his own personal theater, located way out in the sticks, in rural Indiana.  Not acting, but more mundane tasks, like washing out stage ‘flats’ to be repainted, talking with Mary about plays they might put on, actors they might recruit.  And of course raising the needed funds to put on these plays, and when Alan Grofield talks fund-raising for his highly unprofitable theatrical ventures, he doesn’t mean pledge drives and tote bags.

Grofield appeared in eight out of twenty-eight Richard Stark novels, and we never see him acting in a play in even one of them, unless you count him sitting by himself in a corner at the hideout in The Score, playing all parts in a scene from Henry IV Part One.  We’re told he’s good, and that with his talent and looks he could find work in television anytime he wanted, maybe even become a big star, but his dedication to live theater makes him rule that out categorically.   He would rather steal than sell out.

There’s a passage in this book that possibly explains why we never see Grofield acting on stage–he’s contemplating the sorry state of his and Mary’s finances, and lamenting that no heisting work seems imminent–

If worst came to worse he’d drop down into Kentucky or North Carolina for a week or two of writing paper, but he hated that kind of thing, and avoided it whenever he possibly could.  Passing bum checks was no more illegal than knocking over armored cars, but there was a difference he found important; a check passer is an actor, he uses an actor’s talent and methods, but a heavy heister uses different talents entirely. It bothered Grofield to use his acting abilities that way, it seemed somehow degrading.

You just know that if they ever did a movie or a TV show based on Grofield, we’d see him acting all the time–they’d want to show us both his professions, to get that visual contrast, hammer home the premise, the primary conceit of the story.  It would get very cute and contrived, very fast–but they’d have to do it.  Stark, like Grofield, doesn’t want to make that compromise.  He wants to keep things clean and uncluttered, like he always does.

That business about floating bad checks reminds me of what some of Dortmunder’s associates were doing between jobs in The Hot Rock, and again we see the odd doorway that seems to exist between the Stark-verse and the Dortmunder dimension, that is particularly noticeable when Grofield is around.  He isn’t really a Stark character, even in this book–he’s still a Westlake character who ended up in a bunch of Stark novels.

And Mary Grofield (nee Deegan), former switchboard girl in Copper Canyon, North Dakota, who met Grofield in The Score (which we’re told–I don’t know how accurately–was about four years before the events of this book), and insisted on tagging along with him at considerable risk to her life, because the life she had was so damned unsatisfactory–well, this is the last really good look we get at her, which I find personally frustrating, because she’s one of my favorite supporting characters in Westlake’s books.

We finally find out her hair color–black–and her figure–neat and compact–and that she looks like the heroine of a 30’s musical, whatever that means (Ruby Keeler?)  But in a sense, I would argue, she jumped over to the world of Dortmunder as well, in even more altered form.

She’s working in a local supermarket, we’re told–making just enough money for her and Grofield to get by, if they sleep on the stage of their theater–and she’s bringing home groceries from her workplace, only some of which are paid for.   And she has this rationale that what Grofield does when he’s not acting isn’t really stealing, because he’s mainly just taking from institutions who should be giving us money anyhow.

Make her a bit less of a fantasy, a smidgen more grounded in reality, put a cigarette in her mouth, take the ‘r’ out of her name, let her grow a few inches taller, and you’ve got May–Dortmunder’s best girl, who we’ll be meeting very soon.  Mitch Tobin’s wife also worked at a supermarket to help pay the bills, but the noble Kate would never take so much as a stick of gum she hadn’t paid for.   Mary and May, like Kate Tobin, are hardworking and low-maintenance–but much more ethically flexible in other respects–like Claire Carroll.

And this whole darkhaired-wife-working-at-supermarket leitmotif we see over and over in Westlake’s books makes me wonder about those early days of Westlake’s first marriage, when he was still struggling to make it as a writer, but I should know better by now than to ask questions I have no means of learning the answers to.

I have now read this book twice, and I must confess, I don’t see that thing Westlake refers to–the new plot structure.   It’s different from a Parker, sure–the entire story is from Grofield’s perspective, but that was true of The Dame and The Blackbird as well.  He divides it into five parts, each of which begins with Chapter One, and each of which is named after the place it’s set in–Las Vegas, Mead Grove Indiana, St. Louis–then there’s a part called ‘Moving’, which starts in Mead Grove, then has Grofield traveling around, and the final part is set in good old Monequois, New York–this time it’s an isolated town a few miles from the Canadian border, with a brewery in it.   Why not?

I don’t quite see the three bounces.  I don’t know what he’s talking about.  This is probably because I’m not a writer of fiction, accustomed to mapping out plots.  Is it something entirely new?  I have no idea.  Somebody wants to explain it to me, I’d be only too pleased.

I just know it’s very much a Stark novel, and yet still very different in both tone and structure from a Parker novel.  It’s the most successful attempt Westlake ever made to write under the Stark name without writing about Parker, and yet I can’t possibly agree with Paul Kavanagh, who called it ‘The best Richard Stark ever’–it’s definitely not the worst, but it’s very very far from the best.  The fact that Paul Kavanagh is one of Lawrence Block’s pen names makes me suspect he was tossing his buddy a blurb.

But anyway, just to be different, let me synopsize sectionally this time:

Las Vegas:  The shortest section of the book, this sets up the main storyline–it begins with Grofield winning a few nickels at a slot machine at the airport, which he considers an ill omen, since he got three lemons–his old hex sign. He gives the money to a couple there on vacation, and they start gambling with it, and losing, and we’re told he feels slightly guilty about getting them started.  Just to remind us, this is not a Parker novel.

Grofield is there about a job, which is planned by a guy named Myers.  Myers is clearly an amateur, and as all us Stark readers know by know, amateurs spell trouble.  Myers says there’s this brewery in Monequois that still has a cash payroll (a rare thing even back when the first Parker novel came out, and getting rarer all the time).  It’s supposed to be about 120 grand.  He wants to plant a bomb inside the brewery, then come in with a fire engine, thus getting past the guards.

(Yes, it does sound a lot like the heist in Flashfire, doesn’t it?  That’s one of the few Parker novels I’d say is probably not quite as good as this one.  Lemons Never Lie would be easier to film, it’s more self-contained, and has the better title–way better than Parker.  Maybe they should have made this book into a movie, with Jason Statham as Grofield, except who’d buy him as a professional actor?  Oh, that was mean.)

Grofield walks out of the meet before Myers finishes his pitch.  The plan is full of holes.  It involves killing a lot of civilians, which he says doesn’t bother him morally (I don’t quite believe that, somehow), but the law would come after them much harder.  And to make things worse, Myers actually cleared the job with the local chapter of The Outfit, and they’re going to get a percentage of the proceeds (nobody there can believe he thinks that’s what real heisters do).

He’s got what’s described as an eastern boarding school accent, and he’s got all these props and notes, reminiscent of Edgars from The Score, but not out to settle an old score this time.  Still not a guy whose professionalism can be trusted–on any level.  Grofield wants to work, but not that much.   He’s outta there.

He’s joined by the one heister there he’s worked with before, Dan Leach, a big tough taciturn fellow, rather like Parker, but not nearly as smart.  Dan feels like doing some gambling before he flies home, and wins a nice pile at the craps tables.  Then two guys show up at Grofield’s motel room, looking for the money.  When they realize he doesn’t have it, they knock him out.  Then Dan wakes him up, mad as hell, because the same two guys robbed him, and he figures Grofield tipped them.  Grofield knows better–it was Myers and his flunky.  Dan heads off looking for them, and Grofield heads home sourly, brooding on those lemons.

Mead Grove, Indiana: Grofield is back home at his threadbare community theater (a converted barn, like Mickey and Judy used to sing and dance in) that he bought with the money from the Cockaigne heist.  The same money,  we should remember, that was delivered to Mary by a beautiful blonde Philadelphian in support stockings who had just spent several weeks in bed with Mary’s husband, and no we never do find out how that went over.

So he’s washing out flats, and thinking about how he’s going to come up with the roughly 10g’s he needs to put on a season of repertory (he’d hate to have to only do public domain stuff), and then Dan Leach drives up and turns out he’s got Myers in the trunk, and is debating what to do with him.   Grofield figures he should either kill him or let him go.    Grofield also kind of wishes Dan had left him out of it.  He refuses to put Myers on ice until Dan can figure something out, so Dan heads off, with Myers still en-trunked.

(Sidebar: Trying to convince Leach and Grofield that he can be useful to them, Myers tells a story about a new heist, involving an apartment full of money stolen by some guys who are serving a long stretch in prison near L.A.   They dug a tunnel, and they go out at night and do little heists, stow the cash, then go back to their cells.  They’re trying to build up a nest egg for their families, since they’re too old to feel like living on the outside again.  It turns out Myers was just making it all up, but Grofield thinks it’s a nice story, all the same.   So did Westlake, who actually got a letter from a convict fan of his, telling a similar story–he made much more extensive use of it in a later book, that I like even better than this one–Stark doesn’t always top Westlake–not by any means).

What follows the departure of Leach and Myers is a very cozy domestic scene (domestic by Grofield standards, anyway), with Grofield and Mary having a nice meal together, cooked on a hot plate, and then he and Mary have a nice married screw, and fall asleep wrapped around each other, on a sofa located onstage (this would definitely not play in Peoria).  He’s different with her, it must be said.   He’s always putting on a mask with the other women, and with her he’s just–Grofield. Whoever that is.

We’re told he’s out of his mind for her, and we believe it, and we still know he’ll be cheating on her next time he meets some fetching blonde in another state, and being no dummy maybe she knows it too, and doesn’t care that much, as long as it’s not happening where she can see it.  He’ll always come back to her.  Until he doesn’t, of course.  She had a pretty good idea what she was getting into, one surmises, when she saw him coming into the switchboard room in Copper Canyon, wearing a mask, and carrying a gun.  A ‘meet cute’ they call it in the movies.

So Grofield wakes up with his wife’s neat compact little body wrapped around him, and hears a noise, and turns out it’s Dan Leach, and he’s been stabbed a few times.  Myers got the jump on him–these Stark amateurs have their moments.  Grofield and Mary take care of him for a few weeks, and then Grofield gets a call about a job in St. Louis, and it sounds like a good one.   Summer repertory, here we come.  So he leaves Mary alone there, still tending to Leach, and we all know this is not a good idea, but work is work.

St. Louis: This is the heist part of the book, and enjoy it, because it’s the only heist we ever see Grofield pull in any of his solo adventures.  About damn time, Stark.

Grofield checks into the hotel in St. Louis, where there’s a message for him to go to a bar in East St. Louis, and Westlake did love to write about that Jekyll & Hyde of a twin city, with the prim proper Vincente Minnelli town on the Missouri side of the river, and the nasty gritty good time town over on the Illinois side.

So after finding his contact at the bar, they head for the meet, where he gets the lowdown, from a good group of pros–there’s this supermarket, not far out of town, Food King (there is an actual Food King in Baltimore, but probably no relation, and no they didn’t get looted last month, far as I can tell).

Grofield got his start robbing a supermarket, you’ll recall.   This one’s near a military base, and everybody there gets paid by check, so twice a month the supermarket needs to have a lot of cash on hand, because the military wives need to cash the checks and buy a lot of groceries.   Why do I like reading about this kind of job so much better than some elaborate casino heist or like that?  Somehow, Stark is always at his best in relatively mundane surroundings.

The money is in a big old safe, that one of the crew knows how to crack.  There was an attempted heist a few years back, some soldiers who didn’t know what they were doing and got caught, so the sheriff’s deputies watch the place closely, and it’s going to take some careful planning, but it’s doable.  Grofield is no planner, but he can see that in spite of a few irregularities (meeting too close to the scene of the crime), this is going to work out okay.   We’ve all seen how Stark sets these things up–there’s yet another road trip to buy a truck–that makes how many now?–and it never gets old.  This is the longest section of the book, very satisfying to read, but also the most predictable, so I’ll just skip ahead now.

They get the money–nothing huge, 13k a man, but that’s all Grofield needs.  There’s a message at the hotel desk from Mary–several, in fact. He goes up to his room, and guess who’s there–Myers and a new sideman, name of Brock–Myers murdered the last one, and Grofield tries to tell Brock about that, but does anybody ever listen to Grofield when he’s handing out good advice?  He’s the Cassandra of crime.

So there’s a struggle, and he loses the suitcase with the money, but he gets away.   Those lemons are just brutally truthful, you know?  Would it kill them to lie a little sometimes?

Moving: Grofield gets back to Mary, knowing from what little she could tell him over the phone that something went terribly wrong–he can guess–Myers showed up and got his location out of her.   But he left her alive, and in his laconic way, Stark makes you understand that part of Grofield would have died with her.  Leach, of course, got finished off for keeps–there is something to be said for Parker’s policy of killing anybody who takes money away from him on general principle–Leach just wasn’t a killer at heart, so he got done in by a lousy amateur, who didn’t follow the playbook.

Grofield finds Mary in the actress’ dressing room–she’s as much a professional as him, of course.  One reason she means more to him than anyone else.  She really took one for the team this time.

She was sitting at the make-up table, doing nothing, and when he walked into the room their eyes met in the mirror and he saw no expression in her face at all.  He’d never seen her face so completely empty before, and he thought, That’s what she’ll look like in her coffin.  And he ran across the room to pull her to her feet and clamp his arms tightly around her, as though she were in danger of freezing to death and he had to keep her warm.

At first she was unmoving and unalive, and then she began violently to tremble, and finally she began to cry, and then she was all right.

They were together fifteen minutes before they started to talk.  Grofield had made soothing noises and said words to reassure her before that, but there had been no real talk.  Now she said, “I don’t want to tell you about it.  Is it all right?”

“It’s all right.”  She was sitting again, and he was on one knee in front of her, rubbing his hands up and down her arms, still as though trying to keep her warm and alive.

“I don’t want to talk about it ever.”

“You don’t have to.  I know what happened; I don’t need the details.”

She looked at him, and her expression was odd–intense, and somehow sardonic.  She said, “You know what happened?”

He didn’t understand.  They’d come here, Myers and Brock.  They’d killed Dan Leach.  They’d forced Mary to tell them where Grofield was, and what name he was using.  What else?

She saw his face change when he realized what else, and she closed her eyes.  Her whole face closed, it seemed; it went back to the expression he’d seen when he’d first walked in here.

He pulled her close again.  “All right,” he said.  “All right.”

Somehow you know this would never happen to Claire.  Not that you’d need to actually rape Claire to have Parker coming after you with death in his mind.   But Grofield isn’t Parker–his mind doesn’t work that way.  Steal from him, try to kill him, even threaten his wife, and he may have unkind thoughts about you, but he won’t necessarily feel the need to come after you.   He’s not the vengeance type, and he’s not a wolf in human form, either.  He kills when he has to, not to scratch an itch in his head.  But this is different.   Possibly the only person in the world he gives a damn about, other than himself, has been violated.   Even if he’s just playing a role here, it’s a role that was first cast a long time before the theater came into being.

They make love later on–just to take the bad taste out of both their mouths.  Mary doesn’t really want him to go after Myers, but then again, maybe she does a bit, and he’s going either way.   She says she’ll go stay with actor friends of theirs in New York, and start recruiting talent for their next season–keep her mind occupied, and Grofield will know she’s safe.  In the meantime, he’s got to go ‘drum somebody out of the corps’ as he puts it.  Always the actor, most of all when he means every word he’s saying.

He heads over to Pennsylvania in his own car (because this isn’t a job–it’s personal) to pick up some guns from a guy named Recklow, who runs a riding stable, and we’re told used to be an actor in cowboy movies before the blacklist got him (perhaps just a bit of a nod to Bucklin Moon there).   Turns out Grofield is an expert rider (of course he is).  Recklow comes to meet him up in the woods, with the goods.  Grofield buys a Smith & Wesson Terrier–Parker’s go-to weapon–and a Colt Trooper 357, with a long barrel–the latter he clips underneath the dashboard of his Chevy Nova.

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(It’s a used Nova–we’re not told what year, so no image.  Guns don’t tend to change much.)

He stops at Leach’s house in Oklahoma, and finds Mrs. Leach with her throat cut–she was the only other person Grofield knows about who had contact info for Myers.  Myers making sure Grofield can’t track him.   Grofield tosses the house, and finds Leach’s getaway cash, a thousand bucks.  He takes it and torches the house–with Mrs. Leach inside it.  Can’t have the cops investigating a murder that might lead to him.  Well, maybe she wanted to be cremated anyway.

Still moving, over the border in Texas, he stops and calls Handy McKay at his diner in Maine–they’ve met a few times, with Parker (so maybe Parker did get to the diner at some point).  Handy’s still out of the game, but he agrees to ask around about Myers and Brock–he finds a guy, some minor-leaguer, who knows Brock, and was asked to come in on the brewery job, and figured it smelled bad–Grofield can’t believe Myers is still trying to pull off that turkey.  But now he knows where he’s headed–well, in the world of Richard Stark, it does seem all roads eventually lead to–

Monequois, New York: It rains.  A lot.   I’ve vacationed in the Adirondacks, and trust me when I say that’s very true to life.  Grofield locates Myers and his motley crew of semi-pros, and quickly figures out that Myers intends to doublecross them all and take the entire payroll for himself.  He makes this clear to one of them, named Morton, who he grabs from the hideout under cover of night, forcing him to fill in the fine details of Myers’ plan.   Grofield intends to heist this heist, assuming it goes off as planned, but Myers dies either way.

(We all know he’s not getting any 120g’s, because he could do like 10-12 years of rep with that–if Westlake had intended this to be the last Grofield,  even the last one for a while, then he’d have gotten the big score.)

Morton is a likable enough idiot, and Grofield doesn’t kill him, just leaves him tied to a tree, while he goes down to the real hideout, to settle with Myers and Brock.  Only by the time they get back (with the body of a dead accomplice in the car, who they killed), they seem to have had a falling out, and they quickly get into a fight–Grofield just watches them try to kill each other from a handy hayloft for a while, before Myers, fleeing the more dangerous Brock, sees him up there, and then falls to the ground below, where Brock dispatches him.  So really, Grofield just gets an assist, but he’ll take it.

Brock doesn’t know if Myers was telling the truth about Grofield being in the hayloft, but he figures he’ll take no chances, and makes a run for it–Grofield cuts him down with the Terrier, and interrogates him.   The heist, red fire engine and all, was a goddam comic opera.  There was no payroll, just twenty-seven hundred in petty cash.  The brewery went back to checks.  Myers never thought to make sure.  Lots of people dead, the brewery in flames, the whole countryside up in arms–for nothing.  Amateurs always think they know it all.  That’s what happened in Iraq, you know.   Speaking of heists gone wrong.  Oh never mind.

Grofield searches Myers, and finds the twenty-seven hundred, plus a few thousand of Grofield’s Food King money–he spent all the rest on a scheme out of the comic books.  Combined with the money he found at the Leach house, he’s got just enough to open this season.  Then somebody knocks him out from behind.

It was Morton–he got free, and made his play.  Grofield wakes up, and Morton’s getting into Grofield’s car.  Grofield then plays on his sympathies–he’s groggy, the law is closing in, Morton has his gun, and after all, if not for Grofield, Morton would be dead or in cuffs by now.  Morton, a much less vindictive amateur than Myers, feeling magnanimous in victory, says sure, come along.  They head for Canada in the Nova, and of course what Morton doesn’t know is that there’s a Colt Trooper clipped to the underside of the dashboard.  Never bet against the professional in a Stark book.

But Grofield figures that can wait.  Morton won’t be hard to handle.  He goes to sleep, perhaps dreaming of summer, playing alongside his one true leading lady, on their shabby little stage.  Shabby it may be, but it’s theirs, and theirs alone.

Would you believe I did that long intro, then summarized the whole book, with several substantial quotes along the way, and I’m not quite 5,000 words in?  That’s Stark for you.

So, having tinkered with this character over the course of seven years, and six novels (counting the two Parkers), Westlake seems to have finally ironed out the kinks, gotten out of the beta-testing phase–he’s figured out how to make Grofield a Stark protagonist while still letting him be Grofield.  He’s planted him firmly in that same edgy criminal community Parker lives and kills in, established a base of operations, and fleshed out Mary as a character (and in the words of Spencer Tracy, what’s there is cherce).  The fact is, Grofield never needed to be a swashbuckling adventurer, a reluctant detective, a secret agent.   That was interesting enough in its way, but this is far more so.

And having finally solved the problem of Grofield, it just seems like he lost interest in him–Westlake was like that, sometimes.   Grofield made a quick cameo in Slayground, speaking the same lines he had in the opening chapter of The Blackbird.  Then he made his final curtain call in Butcher’s Moon.  He was never mentioned in any of the eight much later novels featuring Parker.

Westlake never decided he was dead, but we’re certainly free to think that he is.  Or that Mary, after the events of Butcher’s Moon, finally decided to lay down the law and make him quit the heisting life.   Or maybe he changed his name to Greenwood, and took some TV jobs.  No, not that last one–not in Stark’s jurisdiction–he’d have to go somewhere else.  Somewhere a bit less–exacting.

Anyway, even if we were told he was dead, there are several Stark heisters who were supposed to have kicked it, who showed up alive and well later on.  You can think anything you want about a character who leaves the stage and never returns.  Maybe Rosencrantz and Guildenstern aren’t really dead.   Those ambassadors could have been misinformed, or lying.  Who really knows?  Did you know W.S. Gilbert (sans Arthur Sullivan) wrote a play in which Rosencrantz had Guildenstern get rid of Hamlet, so he could marry Ophelia?  I bet Westlake did.

I know something else–Westlake didn’t think much of the next book on our list–called it a doorstop–and I tend to agree.   For the first time since starting this blog, I’m not looking forward to rereading a book of his.   And yet, having read it, I know there are things of interest inside of it.   Anyway, I’ll be chipping away at it next week, in my spare time–at the office.  Of course.  Enjoy your weekend, Nephews.  And Nieces.

PS: Since this is the last Grofield review (so sad), let’s have one last cover gallery–the first edition (from World Publishing, Grofield apparently having worn out his welcome at MacMillan) that you see above left, was almost embarrassingly on the nose–the Hard Case crime paperback cover art above right is a thing of beauty (though when I first saw it, I feared for Mary).   European publishers did their usual not terribly relevant shtik (somehow there’s always some lemon yellow in there somewhere, though I supposed that’s mostly a felicitous coincidence).

As usual, I like the Serie Noire version best.  With Stark, minimalism is almost always the best policy.   Like I’m in any position to throw stones.

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Filed under Donald Westlake novels

Review: Adios Scheherazade, Chapter 2

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To: Donald E. Westlake, c/o The Final Mystery

From: ‘Fred Fitch’, via The Westlake Review

Dear Mr. Westlake:

Thanks so much for your response to my previous missive, and for answering my question about Ambrose Bierce (a hero of mine as a boy, as perhaps he was for you as well).  So that’s what happened to him!  Curiouser and curiouser–like something out of one of his stories.  If I said which one, that would be breaking a confidence, of course.  His secret is safe with me.

I was sorry to hear that your hopes of chasing girls in the afterlife with Robert Benchley were thwarted by his current domestic arrangements, but am nonetheless strangely moved to hear of his rapprochement with Mrs. Parker–a vicious circle closed at last.   Anyway, there’s still Fred Allen, right?

So.  In my last letter, I covered the two epistolary novels written by your friends Dresner & Block.  I did not, as you noted, say anything at all about your own book–I have a much-noted tendency to beat around the bush (that’s what she said).

Dresner’s The Man Who Wrote Dirty Books (1959), demonstrated to you and Mr. Block that your time spent writing sleaze paperbacks could be turned to good use.   Mr. Dresner had used his experience to pen a comedic romp of misunderstanding and identity confusion, that ended with the hero re-committing to his profession, and vowing to seek a more personally fulfilling way to practice it.

Mr. Block, who had never been the least bit embarrassed by his own dirty books (maybe the quality of the prose, nothing else), merely sought to write better and dirtier ones, hoping he could somehow revive the sleaze form without its publisher-imposed limitations–and he failed in his attempt, but Ronald Rabbit is a Dirty Old Man (1970) remains highly entertaining, not to mention arousing.  There, the protagonist has never written any kind of porn, but having lived out sexual fantasies with libidinous teenagers and repressed secretaries that even the randy heroes of sleaze would envy, he’s going to just write about his experiences as if they were fiction (neat turnaround).

Both of these novels are available now as ebooks.  But your Adios, Scheherezade (1968), while it appeared in a variety of editions, in a number of languages, has long been out of print, and has not been digitally re-issued.  And I am moved to wonder why that is, given the ongoing rebirth of interest in your work.   Many far more obscure and less distinguished works of yours are currently available electronically.  I must ask–did you want this book to be reprinted?   Is there some reason your estate has not found a publisher for it?  While used editions are not impossible to find, they do tend to be pricey.

I don’t really know how you felt about it, but I can tell you that I consider it to be one of the best things you ever wrote.  And one of the most painful.   Lawrence Block thought highly enough of it to single it out in a short-list of his favorite books of yours, after your death.  It has a level of gut-wrenching honesty that is rare for any author, let alone one who mainly writes genre fiction.

Oh to be sure, there are many brutally honest writers in the crime genre (paradoxically enough), but the venue does demand a certain measure of glamor, seamy and gin-soaked though it be–even Jim Thompson had to make his most deplorable anti-heroes tough and sexy.  There’s always an element of fantasy in that form, which is why you didn’t employ it here, in this story about a man who specializes in fantasies of a different kind.   Over-specializes, as it turns out.

This one reminds me in many ways of Memory, the much longer third-person novel you put aside in a drawer and never made any later attempt to publish–I personally believe that’s because you were ashamed of the way you didn’t give Paul Cole, the amnesiac protagonist, a chance to make choices that might get him out of his predicament.   Even though that’s the point of the book, that his lack of memory has doomed him.  I still think it seemed to you that you’d treated him unfairly.   And that mattered to you, didn’t it?

Adios Scheherazade is a more focused work than Memory, from a writer with a few more years experience–it’s more personal as well, because while both are about roads you yourself might have gone down if things had been different, this is a road that runs parallel to the one you took.  It’s a book about a man who is–and isn’t–a writer.

I feel somehow certain that you must remember the events of this book more clearly than many others you wrote, but for the benefit of those who haven’t read it in a while, or at all (I’d advise the latter to read the book first), I shall assay a synopsis.  In one sense, Adios, Scheherazade has a very simple, easily summarized story–in another, it’s almost a summary of everything you ever wrote, a touchstone for your work as a whole.   It marks the beginning of your true maturity.   And nothing hurts as much as maturity.

Edwin George Topliss (har-de-har-har) is a graduate (with what he considers a useless degree in American Literature) of Monequois College–in this instance, very clearly and directly based on Champlain College in Plattsburgh NY, which as Ed informs us, is now a defunct school that got turned into a military base–just as Champlain College did, after Donald Edwin Westlake attended it.

You said in an interview that you based Mr. Topliss on one of those guys who was writing sleaze under the pen name of a writer who’d moved on, but his first name is your middle name, you gave him your precise educational background. Seems safe to assume you gave him other things of yours.  And what’s more, you knew people who read the book would be assuming just that, drawing parallels between you and Ed, correct or not.   That’s a very deliberate choice on your part.  You even gave him a Smith Corona typewriter, and for you nothing could be more personal than that.

Now in a sense, this is an epistolary novel, but it is not mainly composed of letters, until the very end.  Each chapter is Ed’s attempt to write a sleaze novel that he has to submit to the literary agency he works for–a novel that will be published under the name ‘Dirk Smuff’ (seriously?), the former nom de plume of his former college roommate, the now successful author, Rod Cox, who doesn’t want to write sleaze books anymore (and, when he offered the lucrative opportunity to Ed, warned him “Nobody writes this shit forever”).

The manuscript is due in ten days.  Ed’s already missed two deadlines in the past, and has been put on notice that he better not miss another one, or he’s out.  The literary agent in question (‘Lance Pangle’, heh, good one) is not sympathetic to his personal difficulties–of course he isn’t.   He’s based on Scott Meredith, whose famous (and infamous) literary agency was the one commissioning these dubious books for equally dubious publishers–those who have read Lawrence Block’s just-released collection of non-fiction pieces The Crime of Our Lives (which I’m reviewing next week), will learn that Scott Meredith would literally not cut his own brother a break.

Rod Cox would, of course, be the successful Donald E. Westlake, farming out his porn name to a college buddy with a wife and kid, and a dead end low-paying job at a beer distributor–except you muddy the waters still further.  Because Rod Cox isn’t you.  He’s Richard Stark.  Yeah, I figured that out.   You weren’t trying to hide it, really.   It’s there for the people who pay attention.

See, Rod Cox doesn’t write hardcover mysteries for a major respectable publisher like Random House.  He writes paperback spy novels for an outfit called Silver Stripe (as opposed to Gold Medal, where you’d just started publishing the Parker novels).   He’s getting them published all over the world, in various languages–Ed even mentions them getting published as Gallimard Serie Noires, with those striking black covers.   He’s pretty hot stuff.

Rod’s got a sexy girlfriend named Sabina Del Lex (basically all the names in this book are porn names), with milky white thighs Ed can’t take his eyes off when they come to see him and his wife Betsy at their home out in the sticks.  Ed fantasizes about Sabina coming on to him, which of course she never does.  Ed is seething with envy towards his old friend Rod, who always knew he wanted to be a writer in college, but Ed never took him seriously.

Now wasn’t this the beginning of the time period in which you later sourly remarked that Richard Stark was outselling Donald Westlake?   So you’re playing one hell of a double game here–you’ve placed yourself in the position of a loser who is writing books under the assumed name of an established writer, and the established writer isn’t even you–he’s a poorly disguised version of this Stark guy whose books you’re writing at the same time you’re writing this book–you’re his Edwin Topliss.

And a lot of people, then as now, prefer Stark’s books to the books you’re writing under your own name–Ed even mentions the 20 grand Rod got for selling one of his books to Hollywood–a pointed reference to Point Blank, which Ed and Betsy go to see later in the novel, though that isn’t based on one of Rod’s books. This is very inside baseball, even for you–how many people are there who are going to pick up on all these in-jokes?   If jokes they are.

So by making Ed envy Rod Cox, a character you never flesh out much, you’re hinting that you envy and sometimes even dislike your own alter-ego, Mr. Stark.  Who isn’t really you–just another mask, like Alan Marshall, only better paid and somewhat more respectable.   But then who are you, Mr. Westlake?   Who is Ed Topliss?   Where are you going with this?

Couldn’t be this is another of your beloved identity puzzles, could it?   My paperback reprint says this is ‘The World’s Dirtiest Book’, but it seems like the dirtiest secrets revealed here are not mainly erotic in nature.  I’m guessing we aren’t going to get any naked horny Catholic school girls here.  Quelle dommage.

So anyway, Ed has to write this book in ten days.   He’s done it before–it’s possible.   The plot formulas are well-established, the characters need not be deep (it’s better they not be, really).   He’s expected to submit a book of ten chapters, each running 5,000 words.   He just has to start working, and the book will write itself.  Unfortunately, the book turns out to have a mind of its own.

Ed keeps veering off on tangents, all of them in some way related to his life, his relationships, his regrets, his secret sorrows.  He’ll start typing a nice piece of smut, and then the characters start talking back to him.   They aren’t content to just rip off each others clothes and go at it, like good little genre stereotypes.   So he finishes 5,000 words, but almost none of it is usable, and he puts the chapter aside, and starts over again.   He’s got six Chapter 1’s, before he manages a Chapter 2, and then he does two more 2’s before he gets to 3.   Come to think of it, this would be a challenging work to translate into ebook form.  Those things always have a clickable index menu, don’t they?

Now Ed is, self-evidently, an unreliable narrator–he’s a stranger to himself, and he’s trying to write fiction, so true and false are seamlessly blended together in his typewritten stream-of-consciousness narrative, and you never know when he’s being straight with you, or himself.  Man doesn’t know his own mind, let alone heart, but in the process of writing (and he is writing, and writing well, whether he thinks so or not), he is starting to come to terms with himself, and with the wreck he’s made of his life.  He’s learning how to tell the truth, in prose form–which is, as always, stranger than fiction.

But nothing he’s writing about his life could be the basis of a good living.  He can’t support a family live-blogging his own existence, decades before anybody knows what that means.   Like most people asking “how can I be a writer?” Ed is really asking “how can I be a writer and still eat?”  Ay, there’s the rub.

You remember how you (oh sorry, that was Rod Cox) had that police detective Parker confronts at his house in The Seventh lament inwardly that he doesn’t dare try to draw down on Parker, because his wife and daughter are nearby.  He thinks to himself that a cop with a family has given hostages to fortune–well, in a less dramatic way, so has an aspiring writer.  If you have a family to look after, you can’t just live on cheap food, share an apartment with a few other guys, and work on establishing yourself as a writer, figuring out how to best express what’s inside of you.  You have to pay the damn bills.  So you have to write what you can sell.  Whatever that happens to be.  Like, I dunno, maybe crime fiction.

Ed married Betsy Blake, a local girl attending Monequois College while he was there, who he got set up on a date with.  She was pretty enough, and after a bit of early resistance, a willing sex partner–he took her virginity, they burned up the sheets for months, and he was nuts about her–until he wasn’t.  And they parted ways after graduation, and he was relieved, and he thought maybe she was too–then she phoned him to say she was pregnant.

And he did the right thing.   Which he’s convinced now was the wrong thing.  Except he does love her, and their three year old daughter Elfreda (Fred for short–hmm).  Except he doesn’t.  Except he does.  Well, what is love?  How do you ever know if it’s real, if you don’t even know who you are?

Betsy has been increasingly angry and frustrated with the life they’re now leading in New York City, where she takes care of the kid and shops, while her husband hammers away each day on the typewriter and sulks whenever he takes a break–making a very nice living for the time, but they somehow keep finding a way to spend it all, so no savings to fall back on.

And it’s pretty clear most of Betsy’s anger comes from knowing that Ed didn’t really want her, that he just married her because he had to, and she married him for the same reason.  Ed realizes as he goes on that her future was blighted as much as his by their shared misfortune, which happens to be a little girl they both care about.   But early on, he’s still feeling like she trapped him, and that she’s so much less than he was hoping for in a mate.  Even her name bugs him.

Betsy.  Is that a great name?  Betsy Blake.  She sounds like something out of Archie Comics.  The Blake part she couldn’t help, of course, and Blake by itself isn’t a horrible name, but Betsy?  Of the six thousand different things that Elizabeths are called, Betsy is the absolute worst.

You know, that’s true.  Two out of five girls are named Elizabeth, and they all wind up with one of the Elizabeth nicknames, and it tells you an awful lot about the individual girl which one of those nicknames she gets for a label.  Like Liz is almost always a real whory swinger, a gutsy good-time girl, unless she’s very bony and has the clap, in which case she’s Lizzie.  Bess is respectable but she puts out but she feels guilty about it.  Beth saves herself for one man and works in the library and is very square but also reliable and intelligent and a rock in an emergency.  Bett is bitchy and expensive, but also a great lady.  Elsa is a ski-weekend swinger, but when she gives her word she keeps it.  Eliza hasn’t been seen since the ice floe broke up, but before that she was a whiner.  Elsie is lower class, cheerful, big-mouthed, big smile, she doesn’t get laid much because nobody wants to take advantage of her.  Ella has a lot of female complaints and can’t hold her booze and is very quiet and if things go right she’ll mother you.  Lisa has the self-image of a D.H. Lawrence heroine and likes horses and night clubs.  Betty is an all-American girl and gets married and has two point four children and lives in one of those crappy suburban developments like where I am right now and it’s her kitchen where the kaffeeklatsch is held and she collects for muscular dystrophy.  Betsy is a moron.

(What freaked me out most when I first read this passage is that there was at that time an Elizabeth at the library I work at, and everybody called her Beth.  As to the rest, I couldn’t say.  You were making all that up, right?  Right?)

So of course Ed feels very guilty about that and the other nasty things he says about his wife, and he knows it isn’t true, and it isn’t fair, and it’s precisely what he meant to say, and rather well-written, but that doesn’t make it right.  He starts trying to be nicer to Betsy, and they start making love again, and the marriage seems to be getting on a firmer footing, and then he finally gets to Chapter 2.   And hey–it’s starting to feel like a real book.

See, there’s this guy named Paul Trepless, he’s coming home from work, and he’s married to this wonderful girl named Beth, and they have a daughter named Edwina, and the marriage has been a bit rocky for a while, but it’s been going so much better of late, and he’s happy with her, but just like any man might, he kept a secret diary of his sexual fantasies, none of which were true–he was totally faithful to Beth.  And he gets home, and Beth and Edwina are gone, and he realizes–Beth read the diary!   She’s left a note saying that if he tries to come after her, her brothers will kill him.

(Sidebar: Mr. Westlake, if I may be so bold as to inquire, what was it with you and the name Paul?   Your two most personal-feeling early books, Killy and Memory, both feature protagonists by that name.  You later gave one of your sons that name.  It obviously meant something to you.  Did you, like Oliver Abbott in Up Your Banners, hate the name you’d been given, and have a secret name for yourself?  Don’t think I haven’t noticed that so far you’ve only answered my question about Ambrose Bierce, and I can’t even tell anybody what you said).

So yeah, Betsy read the discarded chapters, which Ed had left in his desk drawer.  Which included a totally fictitious account of how Ed was having sex with their teenaged babysitter, who just barely knows Ed is alive.  And now Ed is alone, and still trying to finish the damn sleaze book, seeing if he can turn his real-life tragedy into a book, because he doesn’t know what else to do.   She really does have two brothers who are very tough customers–they combine a Christmas Tree business with a smuggling operation, and they do come after Ed with the pretty clear intention of putting him in the hospital if not the morgue, and Ed’s life is suddenly a lot more like a Rod Cox novel than a Dirk Smuff.

And this won’t do, because he’s still got a sex book to finish.  So he goes and does some research in Times Square–picks up a black hooker.  And what follows is the most unsexy sex scene in the history of the sleaze genre.   He knows this woman despises him, and she won’t even take off her bra when he asks her, and when he tries to draw out the act, she just exercises certain pelvic muscles and finishes him off.   And then brushes him off.  And while he’s angry at her about this, and thinks about writing a version of the encounter where he gives her an orgasm, his main reaction is to loathe himself even more–and not just himself.   His entire race.  His entire gender.   His entire civilization.  And the New York Times.

He tells us he was reading the Times book review, that most prestigious place for a writer to get written about, trying to figure out what makes you an author, and not just a cheap hack, and what he noticed was that really, nobody seems to know.  He just knows that the books he writes are not in there.  Then he notices something else.

But I’ve saved the best for last.  Way in the back of the Book Review, page 76, there’s a review of a book of photographs of Africa called African Image.  Some of the photographs are shown, and do you know what is the main central photograph taking up almost one-third of the whole page?  A bunch of female spades with their tits hanging out.  Right.  In the Book Review of the New York Sunday Times, November 26th, 1967.  Not 1867, and not the National Geographic.

So I guess I am in there after all.  No matter what the hard news up front, no matter what the self-image we’re all pushing this week, back in the back of the Book Review there am I.  All the grubby old attitudes are still alive, all the sneaky little scatological sniggering nastinesses, all the little-boy-pulling-his-wee-wee dirtiness is still inside your head and mine and the head of the New York Times, and it always will be.  Because if those had been white women they would not have run the picture.

Now I know why that hooker wouldn’t take off her bra.

Why do I say that’s me back there, weeping and sniggering on those dusky boobs?  Because it is out of the adolescent garbage in men’s heads that I have made my living for almost three years.  The adolescent garbage in my head feeding the adolescent garbage in their heads, a real meeting of minds, a real communion, so when you come right down to it what I have been doing is closer to the definition of art than anybody in that jazz section will ever get in his whole life.

Phooey.  That’s garbage, too.  I have never risen above the material any more than my readers have, and if you can’t rise above the material you ain’t an artist.  And it’s tough to rise above quicksand.

(You mention in this book all the little tricks writers of cheap paperbacks have to fill up pages–us bloggers have similar tricks, often involving long quotations from books we didn’t write.)

So anyway.  Ouch.  Direct hit.  Well played, sir.  And now let me say something you may or may not want to hear–there have been a number of semi-obscene books about men’s sexual problems that were huge sellers–I’ve got images of two of the  most famous up above, and I know you read both–Portnoy’s Complaint came a few years after you wrote this, and see how the publisher reprinting your book in paperback tried to make the cover look similar?   Yeah, that didn’t work.  You know why?

Because Humbert Humbert and Alexander Portnoy are not Everyman.  They are very specific men, with very specific problems, and very specific pains, and very specific sins, and we can read those books, and maybe get some vicarious enjoyment out of them, and still say “Well, that’s nothing like me.”   And we don’t get that escape valve with this book.   It hits its target dead square on center, and that target is the reader.

Personally, I didn’t care much for either of those books, if you want to know.  I suspect I’m never going to get all the way through Lolita, which I find to be a meandering melange of mendacity, and screw what the critics and lit professors think.  Portnoy’s is intermittently moving and honest, but it’s basically just one successful promiscuous Jewish boy complaining to his shrink about how successful, promiscuous and Jewish he is.   I can’t relate on any front, sadly.  Few of us guys can manage more than two.  So we can admire him, feel sorry for him, be entertained by him, and not be terribly upset by him (particularly since the whole thing ends with a classic punchline).  And as for the other half of the world’s readers, wouldn’t you know, even the misogyny in Roth’s work (and in Roth himself) can turn some women on.  He’s no Everyman.

But, you see, Edwin Topliss is Everyman, as odd as his personal situation may be.  He’s speaking for all of us.  And he’s speaking very well, but in such a way as to offend and turn-off nearly everybody.   My girlfriend, who loves your Parker novels, put this book down a few chapters in, and wouldn’t go on.   And I’d say why I thought that was, but she reads this blog sometimes, and regardless of what Mr. Topliss thinks, there are valid life lessons one can learn from American literature.

(Mr. Westlake, perhaps you’ll know what I’m talking about when I tell you I can hear some of my readers muttering to themselves, “Oh dear, Fred’s in one of his moods.”  Hey, I don’t charge you guys to read this palaver.  Not even 35 cents.  I’ll get back to Dortmunder & Co. soon enough.  Humor me, willya?)

Anyway, even after all of this self-revelatory insight, and after being chased out of his own house, and then out of the apartment of a (surprisingly) intimidated Rod Cox by his two semi-homicidal in-laws, Ed is still trying to finish the damn sleaze book!   He’s sneaking into stores that sell typewriters and hammering out more pages, and then leaving when some salesperson asks if he want to buy anything.  We don’t even get an explanation of how this confused narrative has been conveyed to us, no framing device, ala Lolita–Ed tells us his earlier chapters are lost, yet we can still read them.   But that’s quibbling, isn’t it?

Betsy, who completely disappears from the story, though not Ed’s confused consciousness, after she walks out with Elfreda, told the police he’d committed statutory rape with their babysitter, which he didn’t, and the babysitter said so, but her father had her medically examined (ew!) and turned out she wasn’t a virgin (teenagers had sex back then? who knew?), so they don’t believe her.  So the cops are after Ed as well.   Not merely his writing career, such as it was, but Life As He Knew It, is over.

And I must say, he seems mainly relieved.   Sad, chastened, still deeply ashamed of having failed  to understand Betsy’s pain because he was so focused on his own, but still–relieved.  And somehow empowered, odd as that sounds.   As he starts to bid farewell to everything, we realize–he’s lost the whole world, and gained his immortal soul.

He’s trying to write a chapter about this guy named Brock Stewart, who Beth Trepless (Paul’s estranged wife, remember?  Of course you do) picks up as she’s escaping, and there’s supposed to be a sex scene between them, but he can’t bring himself to write it.  So Brock gets off at a crossroads where there’s a small diner, empty but for a pretty young waitress.  Per the ‘La Ronde’ form of the sleaze novel that Ed told us about earlier, Brock is now supposed to seduce this girl, or she him, so the mating square dance can continue and instead we get this–

“For Christ’s sake,” he said, “you have to do, don’t you?  You can’t just give up, can you?”

“Sure you can,” she said.

“Well, I’m not going to,” he said.  “Who would I be if I gave up?”

“You mean, where would you be?”

“No, I don’t.  I mean who would I be?  Whom would I be?”

“You’d be you,” she said.

“I can feel the ground crumbling away beneath me,” he said.  “I’m terrified.”

She said, “What is the worst possible thing that can happen to you?”

“Everything stops,” he said.

“You mean, you die?”

“No,” he said.  “I mean I don’t get the book done, and Betsy doesn’t come back, and I don’t live in that house any more, and all of the things that I have been and roles that I have played and personas that I have assumed will come to a stop.”

“And what is left,” she said, “‘will be you.”

You won’t believe this but a third-generation (!!!) TV writer named Joss Whedon who did this show about a teenaged vampire slayer wrote basically that same exchange for her and a vampire she was fighting, thirty years after you wrote this, and people were over the moon about it, and comparing him to Shakespeare on the internet.   He’s making untold millions now doing comic book superhero movies.  And in a few more decades, nobody will remember him.  Such is fame, for a writer.   Many called, few chosen.  Or chosen, then forgotten.  You knew all about that.

Nobody will remember Edwin Topliss.  The book he’s the hero of (and he is that, strange though it seems to say so), may never get republished, though I hope it will, someday.  And yet, I consider this a hopeful ending, by the standards you upheld in life, because he threw away all the masks and pretensions, took a good hard look at himself, and decided he preferred his real face, homely though it might be.

And you went on writing popular books (never too popular, but durable as all hell), and rising above the material, and trying to find yourself in it.   As some of us are still trying to find you in it, but you could have left us a few more clues, Mr. Westlake.

And I passed my self-imposed limit of 5,000 words–I guess maybe all formulas have their limits.  Still, I’d best bring this epistolary review to a close.  Au revoir, connard.  Give my regards to Ambrose, and tell him I said these things will happen.  Oh, and April Fool’s.  Like that needed mentioning.

‘Fred’

PS: I bet you thought nobody would ever check, but I did.  And there it is, dusky boobs and all.  Page 76 of the New York Sunday Times Book Review, November 26th, 1967.  African Image, Grosset & Dunlap, $12.95.  Photos by Sam Haskins.  The review is fittingly entitled A Feeling for Africa.

::snigger::

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Filed under Donald Westlake novels

Review: The Blackbird

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He got out of the shower, toweled himself dry, and walked nude into the room, stopping short in the doorway.  Seated on the chair across the room was a coal black Negro girl in a green pants suit, looking like Robin Hood got up for a Commando raid.  She looked Grofield up and down and said, as though to herself, “They are smaller.”

“I don’t believe it,” Grofield said.

“Take my word for it,” she said.

“I don’t believe God could be so cruel,” Grofield said.  “All I want to do is sleep.  I don’t want anything complicated now.”

“Nothing complicated,” the girl said briskly.  Behind her camouflage, she was a stunning girl, with large flashing eyes and close-cropped hair in the natural style, very wooly.  She spoke with a vaguely British accent.  She said, “All you have to do is tell me who sent you here and why.  Then I’ll go away and you can sleep.”

“My doctor,” Grofield said.  “For the waters.”

“What?”

“My doctor sent me here.  For the waters.”

“What waters?”  She sounded more annoyed than confused.

“I was misinformed,” Grofield said.  “Humphrey Bogart and Claude Rains, Casablanca, 1942.  I hope you have an exit line, because you’re exiting.”  He walked toward the bed.

So here we are at the third Grofield novel, published by MacMillan in 1969, which begins with the same fouled-up armored car heist as a Parker novel named Slayground, published by Random House in 1971, even though the next Parker novel Deadly Edge (also dated 1971) clearly takes place before the events of the earlier Grofield novel. And just to make things even more convoluted, Slayground has two copyright dates–1969 and 1971. Confused yet? You will be.

You will read in many souces that The Blackbird has the same opening chapter as Slayground–not quite exactly the case. We see the same sequence of events that Slayground begins with, true enough, but in this book we see them from Grofield’s POV.

In the latter book, Stark sticks with Parker, showing us the action from his perspective–the paragraphs that don’t describe what one of them is doing or seeing are identical (which is evidently the reason for Slayground having two different copyright years). In Slayground, the chapter ends with Parker running into an amusement park with a satchel of money. In The Blackbird, Grofield (appropriately enough) blacks out, subsequent to the getaway car crashing.

Probably by the time Grofield woke up in a nearby hospital, Parker’s very bad day at the fair had already concluded and he was back at a house in Northern New Jersey we’ll be learning about in another book. So that’s where the experiment in parallel plotting ends, but I’m curious–has anybody else ever done this? Start two completely different books from two completely different publishers with two completely different protagonists with the same opening chapter, from two different vantage points?

And did Westlake write these books at around the same time, as Sarah Weinman says in her introduction to the Grofield novels for the University of Chicago reprints? She says it was about publishing schedules–that’s quite plausible, and she may have had inside information to that effect (not entirely clear). After Gold Medal decided to stop publishing the Parker novels as first edition paperbacks, it took a while for Westlake to work out a deal with Random House to publish them in hardcover. He might have had two or three written by that time. For a while there, Grofield was the only Stark character with a job.

However, given that Slayground clearly takes place after the events of Deadly Edge (in the last chapter, Parker goes back to the house in New Jersey), I’m wondering if Westlake wrote The Blackbird before either of them, and decided to give Grofield a sales boost, by having Parker make what was then his only cameo appearance in another character’s book (up until a certain Joe Gores novel in ’72).

Did he get curious later as to what happened to Parker after Grofield blacked out, and decide to write that story? Or did he write The Blackbird and Slayground together, and then decide to fill in the gap of how Parker and Claire came to live in New Jersey with Deadly Edge, before publishing Slayground, and add in the reference to New Jersey in Slayground? See, I told you you’d be confused. Join the club. Anybody knows for sure, pipe up by all means.

So. Grofield wakes up in the hospital, with police guards, and he figures he’s screwed. He is, but not the way he thinks. There are Feds there who want to talk to him. Not FBI. Not CIA. Not Treasury. Some other branch in the great spreading tree that is U.S. Defense/Intelligence/Law Enforcement/Etc.

They do not seem to know Grofield already worked for the government (after a fashion) around a year back (see The Handle), along with Parker, and that it didn’t work out so well for the government (though Grofield was the one who got shot multiple times).

They seem to know everything about Grofield–like for example, that he’s on good terms with with both General Pozos of Guerrero and Unum Marba of Undurwa, who we met in the two previous books–so you’d think they’d know about the Cockaigne job as well, but you can rationalize it as typically poor communication between different agencies. It’s not really that implausible. That’s how 9/11 happened, right? Oh of course, that was a vast government conspiracy. No plane ever hit the Pentagon. Osama bin Laden was a patsy, or a plant. Because vast sprawling government bureaucracies are just that well-organized. I’m rolling my eyes now.

Grofield has a choice, and you will note it’s not entirely dissimilar to the choice made by J. Eugene Raxford in The Spy in the Ointment, published about three years earlier. Eugene’s choice is A)Go undercover with terrorists who think he’s one of them or B)Wait for the terrorists to figure out he’s not one of them and kill him.

Grofield’s choice is simpler–A)Go undercover at a gathering of third world leaders in Canada (including Pozos and Marba) who may find out he’s a U.S. agent and kill him or B)Go to jail, do not pass go, and collect Social Security much later, if ever. He’s not happy with this choice. Nobody would be happy with this choice. But these are his options.

He accepts the deal offered with the tacit understanding by all concerned that he’s going to try to run out on them the moment he gets the chance. He tries really hard–and Grofield has already demonstrated his talent at shaking a tail in The Handle. Makes a run at the airport. No dice–they bugged his clothes. He can’t shake them the way he did the agents in The Handle. He wonders out loud to an agent name of Murray if they’ve even implanted some kind of tracking device inside his body–this is a rather prescient little passage in its way–

“My God!” Grofield said. He felt physically weak. “What a thing even to think about!”

Murray looked thoughtful. “But you know,” he said slowly, “that isn’t such a bad idea. You take your known Commie, say, your incorrigible criminal, like you, for instance, you take whoever it might be you’re interested in, you put the little transmitter in them, then any time you wanted to know what they were up to you’d just triangulate on them, see where they were, go on over and check them out.”

“That’s the most evil thing I ever heard in my life,” Grofield said.

“Why?” Murray seemed honestly puzzled. “We wouldn’t use it on good people,” he said. “Just bad people.” He smiled broadly, delighted with himself. “You know what I’m going to do? I’m going to put that in the suggestion box back in the office.”

Grofield looked at him. “I keep having the strong feeling,” he said, “that for the sake of generations unborn I ought to strangle you here and now.”

Murray chuckled, not taking him seriously. “Oh you,” he said. You’ve just got a vested interest, that’s all. Being a thief and everything.”

Relax, Grofield. It’s been over 40 years, and they still aren’t there yet. Just stay off the internet, and watch out for tiny helicopters–oh never mind, you’d be retired by then. Or dead.

They don’t need tracking devices–they know about his acting career. There’s no way he can elude them indefinitely. He gets them the intel they’re after–the purpose of the gathering of tinpot dictators in Quebec City–or the next time he sees his lovely wife Mary will be on visiting day.

And somehow, superhumanly faithful and patient though she is, it’s hard to imagine Mary waiting 25 years to life. I mean, fair is fair–the last time Grofield went away for a job, he bedded three fetching blondes over the course of maybe two months, and one of them showed up on Mary’s doorstep with his money from the job–wearing support stockings. Like that makes it any better. And he’s going to cheat on her yet again, but not with a blonde this time. He’s an equal opportunity philanderer.

In the scene I opened this review with, he meets Vivian Kamdela, who is from Undurwa, the same country as Onum Marba, and that’s no coincidence–she works for him, and has been assigned to find out why Grofield is there. Strong-willed, educated, and rather contemptuous of Grofield’s every-man-for-himself attitude. Throughout the book, they’re having a back and forth philosophical dialogue strongly resembling that between Oliver Abbott and Leona Roof in Up Your Banners, only these two are not falling in love at any point in time. Vivian is very patriotic and loyal to her country, and believes in being a good soldier. Grofield only believes in being Grofield.

There’s clearly an attraction (of course there is, it’s a Grofield novel), but her reaction to him is even more hostile than that of the female leads in the two previous books–in all three cases, he’s faced with a strong-willed female he’d happily bed given the opportunity, who wants to use him for some agenda that puts his life in danger–difference here is that Vivian’s agenda isn’t personal, but political.

They go for a romantic carriage ride through historic Quebec City, during which Grofield finally meets Mr. Marba again, who respects Grofield’s abilities–which he observed up-close in the previous book–but naturally distrusts him, since he can even use truth as a weapon. Grofield, acting very much against orders, tells Marba who he’s working for, and what he’s supposed to learn. He just wants to find some way out of this mess, and figures Marba might help him. The ride back with Vivian is much less friendly than the ride there.

She faced him again, still frozen-eyed. “If you must know,” she said, “on the way up I thought you were a patriot. I thought you were working for your country out of conviction. A patriot might be my enemy, if his country was my country’s enemy, but at least I would be able to respect him. But you aren’t a patriot, you were forced to be here and you don’t care at all that you are betraying your country. You don’t care for anything but yourself, you don’t understand the existence of anything larger than yourself. I despise you, Mr. Grofield, and I do not want to talk to you any more. And I don’t want you to talk to me.”

“Some day, Miss Kamdela,” Grofield said, “we’ll have a nice long talk about patriotism vs. the draft. In the meantime, I’m going to take care of my own skin whether you approve of me or not.”

It is often hard for me to understand how political conservatives have ever considered Donald Westlake (under any name) to be one of them (as many clearly do). Not that us liberals should ever have regarded him as a reliable ally, either. We’ve already seen him devastate the Anarchist/Libertarian argument in Anarchaos, and he made his feelings clear about aspiring left-wing revolutionaries in Up Your Banners, and quite a few other books. “A plague on all your houses” would probably sum his attitude up fairly well. So good luck trying to stick a label on him.

Grofield is briefly abducted and drugged by some faction, seemingly linked to an extremist French Canadian separatist movement, but their agenda is unclear–they want to know what he knows, and he doesn’t really know anything yet–he didn’t even know there was such a thing as French-Canadian separatist movements. I have to say, he’s much less knowledgeable about politics here than he was in The Damsel–one suspects Westlake decided it just wasn’t believable for somebody as indifferent to politics as Grofield to know much of anything about it. His bugged clothing saves him, bringing in his handlers to the rescue.

But then he gets grabbed again, this time by Marba’s group, who have decided to neutralize him–confiding in Marba was maybe not such a great idea. He’s taken on a plane ride into the frozen wastes of Northern Canada (sorry Canuck readers, but you know better than me what it’s like up there–I can barely make it through a New York City winter these days), given new unbugged clothes, and they finally set down at a remote lodge by a frozen lake, that is only accessible by air, or snowmobile.

Grofield is exactly where the people who recruited him wanted him to be, but not at all in the way they (or he) wanted–he’s got no way to report back, and to make sure he doesn’t learn anything useful to American intelligence, he’s locked in a bleak isolated room with nothing to do but wait for the gathering of third world governments to end.

Grofield can’t stand confinement any more than Parker could, but his reaction to it is different than Parker’s would be–he breaks down the door, and goes to complain about his treatment–taken to see Undurwa’s head of state (who has been told by the irritated Miss Kamdela that this Grofield is not to be trusted), he fails to understand the mentality of a dictator–so alien to a free spirit like himself–and totally blows the interview. He talks to the man as if they were equals. Oh dear.

The military dictator, Colonel Rahgos, says Grofield has unfortunately given him no choice but to order him killed. Nothing personal, of course (it’s a bit personal; military dictators dislike free spirits on general principle). Grofield in this instance does respond the way Parker would–by jumping through a nearby window, after grabbing the Colonel’s overcoat. Which isn’t going to be nearly enough. It’s winter. In Northern Canada. If he can’t find shelter, and better clothing, and fast, they won’t need to kill him.

What follows is Grofield adapting to the situation, as he always does, improvising his way into a nearby structure guarded by only two armed men–normally not such a problem for him, except he’s in the process of freezing to death. But through a combination of ingenuity and dumb luck, he figures out a way to ride up on an electrically operated door, and conceal himself on the ceiling–then at an opportune moment, incapacitates the guards, obtaining boots, a heavy mackinaw, and an automatic rifle. There are supplies in the building, and snowmobiles. He appropriates both, and makes his escape.

Only not quite. He had to wait until dawn to see where he was going, and in the distance, he sees that something very bad is happening at the compound–it seems to be under attack. Not from his government, but (as it turns out) the people who had grabbed him earlier. Lots of shooting and burning going on. He sees no reason to involved himself in it–but then he meets Vivian–who assumes he’s behind it, naturally. But he convinces her otherwise, and the fact that he’s her only chance of surviving has a rather thawing effect on her frosty demeanor. They evade an airplane piloted by some of the attackers, and by this time she’s fully on Team Grofield.

She tells him what’s been going on–four African American soldiers managed to steal a really nasty biological weapon from a military storehouse. They’ve hidden it somewhere in the surrounding area, and are auctioning it off to the highest third world bidders. There’s enough of it to kill everybody on the planet forty times over (Uncle Sam being nothing if not thorough), so there’s plenty to go around–and as Vivian explains, even if they never wanted to use it, the threat of a neighbor having it would be enough to make them want to have some too, just as a counter-balance.

Now Grofield is not the altruistic sort. That’s been very well established. It takes a whole hell of a lot to motivate him to do anything at all for anyone other than himself. What he wants to do now is head south, find a phone, and call his handlers–let them handle it. If the sale was going ahead as planned, that’s exactly what he’d do.

But Vivian, being a practical levelheaded sort of girl under all her patriotic zeal, convinces him that this won’t work–clearly what’s happened is that some more dangerous entity than these little impoverished countries intends to get the whole stockpile, and then maybe drop it on major American cities, or blackmail the western governments–when you can kill everybody in the world forty times over, your options are fairly expansive.

Grofield’s options, by contrast, are very limited–if he chooses escape, then these people will get the gas canisters, and make off with them, long before the cavalry arrives. There’s nobody else to stop them. Grofield doesn’t want to be James Freakin’ Bond. But that’s the role he’s been forcibly cast in. And he’s really really pissed about that.

He’ll play the role, because he’s a professional and all, but he won’t enjoy it one bit, and he’s going to take some ethical shortcuts, because he just wants to get back alive, and play the role he’s more comfortable in–taking other people’s money. However, for his actor/heister lifestyle to continue, he does need civilization as we know it to go on functioning. Not much demand for an actor in a post-apocalyptic world, and since everybody would be stealing, his other profession would get much too crowded. So once more into the breach.

Vivian tells him only the four black American soldiers–Grofield’s countrymen–know the location of the gas cannisters. Grofield and Vivian fight their way through the chaotic scene at the compound, get to the soldiers, who are being held prisoner, preparatory to having the information tortured out of them–and what happens then–okay, major spoiler alert–

One of the four said to Grofield, “I don’t know where you came from, man, but you’re beautiful.” All four of them were grinning in relief.

Grofield said, “Did you tell anybody where the canisters are?”

“Are you crazy? That’s what kept us alive.”

“Nobody at all?” Grofield insisted.

“Not even the chaplain,” the spokesman said.

“That’s good,” Grofield said, and pointed the machine gun at them and pulled the trigger.

Here we see that Grofield maybe does pass muster as a Stark protagonist after all. He’s learned a few things from Parker. If it needs doing, do it. These men had betrayed their country (which to be sure, hasn’t exactly done right by them most of the time), and Grofield obviously doesn’t give a damn about that. But they put the lives of everyone on the planet at risk in the process. They were obviously going to kill Grofield as soon as they didn’t need him. And even if that wasn’t true, the only way to be sure the people attacking the compound don’t get the gas is to make sure nobody–absolutely nobody–knows where it is. They gots to go.

So why make the soldiers black? It just raises the question of race in a way seemingly unnecessary to the story being told–so clearly Westlake, who was working on a book about American racial turmoil around the same time, wanted to raise that issue–but not deal with it seriously, because it’s not a serious book.

Now, we don’t get to know these men–not even their names–so it’s not as shocking as it might be for Grofield to just whack them. We’ve seen him kill lots of white guys before now, and not waste a moment’s time worrying about it–but still–pretty damn cold. And dealt with by Stark in his usual terse offhanded anti-climactic approach to violence.

The point, I’d guess, is who would be most likely to have such a low opinion of society as to not give a damn what happens to it? Obviously the people society treats the worst. Not most of them–but it only takes a few. And, as Westlake said in Up Your Banners, nobody condescends up–if you keep treating people with kid gloves because you’re sorry for the way they’ve been treated, or guilty about it, you’re not really treating them as equals. Rather the opposite. People deserve to be judged by the content of their character–those who sell weapons of mass destruction to the highest bidder can’t really be said to have any character at all.

He’s had mainly sympathetic black characters in his books up to now–Grofield himself makes a metatextual comment to Vivian about how black guys are never the villains in this kind of story (not really true–see Live and Let Die, clearly an influence on this book). Time for a little balance. Black men can be just as despicable as white men, if they set their minds to it.

While it’s a bit hard to buy that four black soldiers could steal such a deadly weapon without the government noticing, we Americans do tend to misplace our toys rather a lot, don’t we? So allowing for that level of bureaucratic incompetence, as Westlake invariably does, what’s the simplest answer to Grofield’s dilemma?

Vivian can’t believe he chose that answer, and once they’ve gotten clear of the bad guys (well, the worse guys), she really lights into him–accuses him of killing the men just because they’re black. But she’s forced to concede eventually that it was the only way–to stop the weapons from getting into the worst possible hands–and for the two of them to survive.

And having forgiven Grofield, seen that there is some merit to his worldview, even if she can’t entirely share it, and of course being impressed by his capabilities–well, this is the third Grofield novel to end with him bedding the hostile broad. I’m a guy, so I’m not complaining, but it is getting a mite repetitive. By the bye, he explains to her in mid-coitus that while white men seem to have smaller procreative members than black men on average, it’s actually only true when they’re in the flaccid state (hey, don’t ask me). She finds this very sexy, for some reason. It’s good to be the hero–as long as you survive.

Overall, I think this is the best of the three Grofields published by MacMillan–Westlake has gotten much closer to figuring out how to write like Stark without writing about Parker. I think actually that’s one of the reasons he put Grofield in that situation with the four soldiers–to prove that Grofield could be just as cold and capable. But somehow, he’s not nearly as convincing, or compelling. He’s still too much of a Mary Sue, if you know what I mean (if not, click the link).

I’d take any of the Parkers over this book. Of course, Parker wouldn’t have let himself get involved in this kind of story to begin with–as I said in an earlier review, Parker forces the narrative to bow to his agenda–Grofield, however grudgingly, will ultimately agree to be whatever the story calls on him to be–even a hero who saves the world from dastardly villains seeking doomsday devices. He’ll do it in his own unique style, with a lot fewer pretensions than Philip Marlowe or James Bond, but he’ll do it. An actor learns to make do with the roles he’s offered. The show must go on.

Grofield is an interesting experiment, and by no means a completely failed one. Stark will give him one last chance to be the protagonist, working on familiar Stark territory at long last, and we finally get to see Mary again (and she shows us why Grofield always goes back to her, however far he strays). The Blackbird won’t be the best Grofield novel for very long. But ultimately, Westlake had to acknowledge that enough was enough–he’d taken this character as far as he could go. There wasn’t enough there there, to paraphrase Gertrude Stein.

What distinguishes Grofield most from Parker is the sense of humor–there’s humor in the Parker novels, sure, but it’s very subdued, played so close to the vest as to be nearly indistinguishible–you don’t laugh reading them. Grofield is always joking, never taking anything seriously, least of all himself–it’s endearing in its way, but the thing is, he’s so determined to find the humor in every situation, so convinced of how funny he is, that you don’t really laugh reading about his adventures either. He’s trying too hard.

Suppose there was a Westlake protagonist who aspired to be like Parker–who wanted to be cold and capable and competent–and who really is, in so many ways–but life keeps conspiring to make him look ridiculous, and there’s nothing he can do about it? Comedy always works best when the protagonist doesn’t want to see the joke–nothing funnier than wounded dignity. Than things not working out as planned. Buster Keaton never laughed at anything, and that’s why everybody laughed at him. Parker doesn’t want to make us laugh–refuses to participate in comic ventures–Grofield, for all his wit, can’t make us do much more than chortle–the Westlake Nephews are diverting, amusing, but the bellylaughs somehow just aren’t there.

Donald E. Westlake, having had his biggest success with a comic crime novel, has been trying for half a decade now to be funny–really funny. But he hasn’t had the right foil. He’s going to find him now. And perhaps you see him in your mind’s eye, walking out of prison with a perpetual hangdog air, like a malnourished coyote, and now a car bears down upon him–and is that a girly scream emitting from his mouth? What the heck?

The Blackbird was the last Donald Westlake novel to bear a 1960’s publication date (and they can be somewhat misleading, but never mind that now). The 70’s are here, and they’re going to be something quite quite extraordinary in this particular writer’s career. Westlake the comedian has fully emerged from his chrysalis. And the crime novel will never be the same again.

(But first, I’m going to do one more thing about Grofield–patience, readers. Dortmunder is coming–save me a seat at the OC Bar & Grill–I’ll have a bourbon–something cheap–but oh so sustaining).

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Filed under Donald Westlake novels, Interracial Romance

Review: The Dame

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It was rare for Grofield to be the innocent bystander, and he didn’t much like it.  When he was guilty, as he frequently was, he was exclusively guilty of well-planned and well-executed major robberies with a cast of perhaps five or six, where most of the details and most of the potential results were already counted on within the plan.  If the plan were to go sour–as sometimes even the best-laid plans did–it would nevertheless do so within a perimeter of the known.  Grofield would know how to act.   More important, he would know how to react.

But here he was in the middle of somebody else’s story.  To take a simile from his second profession, he had been miscast.  Not only that, he’d been thrust onstage without even knowing his lines.

Who was reading the Grofield novels, back when they were first coming out?   I’d love to know.  As you can see above, they were published in a variety of places, often in translation.  We can fairly assume many were fans of the Parker novels, who had met Grofield there and wanted to see what he got up to when Parker wasn’t around–but the Grofields are so different from the Parkers, in both style and content, it’s likely they developed their own readership–probably much smaller.   Or else Grofield would have likely shared a publisher with Parker, which he never did, at least not as a soloist.

He began as Parker’s sidekick, at Pocket Books.  His first three solo outings were with MacMillan; his last at World Publishing.  He missed out on the Gold Medal era of Parker entirely, and ended his days at Random House, appearing in two of the Parkers published there.

But such is the elusive transitory nature of Grofield, his first two books were what you might call a two-part sequel to The Handle, a Parker novel published by Pocket.  Though sequel isn’t really the right word–sidetrack, really.   Detour.  Grofield tends to keep straying from the point.  Maybe that is the point.  He is, after all, a Westlake character who somehow got born into the world of Richard Stark.   And never quite seemed to belong there.   He finally jumped ship entirely, but we’ll talk about that later.

We’ve already looked at The Damsel, which I found on rereading to be an interesting but unsatisfactory experiment–Westlake trying to write as Richard Stark while spinning a farcical swashbuckling tale of foreign intrigue and romance–not really Stark’s bag, and it comes across as a failed attempt to blend two very different approaches to storytelling.   Not without its moments, but very weak tea compared to any of the Parker novels, or indeed most of Westlake’s work under his own name, or as Tucker Coe.

I’ve also mentioned Westlake’s criticism of the Daniel Port novels of Peter Rabe, one of his favorite writers.  Port was a series character, who like so many others (including Parker and Grofield) wasn’t originally intended to be one.   According to Rabe, he just came along at the right time, and having survived the first book (as most of Rabe’s heroes did not), he got to be in five more.

And each was a bit different from the one before it–how much of this was by conscious intent of the author, and how much was just him groping around for the right approach, I have no idea, but based on his own comments, probably more the latter.  Port started out in a story about organized crime and corrupt machine politics (Dig My Grave Deep), which ends with him fleeing that world, and going on the road.  Then he got involved in a heist story (The Out is Death), very fatalistic and dark, and not entirely consistent with the bio of the character we’d already been given.

In the third book (It’s My Funeral) he’s suddenly in Hollywood working as a P.I. (even though he isn’t one);  helping a movie starlet, dating a singer, and it’s all very lightweight and comedic–rather Shell Scott, and since everybody was reading those Richard Prather novels back then, that was very likely intentional–in his essay on Rabe, Westlake suggests it’s a pastiche of Leslie Charteris’ stories about The Saint, and that may well be true, but I just can’t see Simon Templar being quite this goofy.   Maybe the style is Charteris, but the substance, such as it is, seems more Prather-esque to me.

Bring Me Another Corpse is a mob thriller that links back to the first book, and is probably the weakest of the bunch.   The Cut of the Whip is a western noir, set in the Texas oil country (Jim Thompson territory), with a love interest who fairly begs to be played by Faith Domergue.  And Time Enough to Die, which Rabe and Westlake both thought was the best of the bunch, is a south of the border adventure story with a touch of espionage.   By the time it wraps up, Port seems to have at long last found love with a Mexican woman who is every bit his equal (that’s probably underrating her), and I’d say it’s just as well for Port that’s where it all ended.  Lord only knows where he’d have turned up next.  Shanghai?  Timbuktu?

Whether he’d originally intended this or not, Rabe used Port to explore different types of story within the overall genre he was working in.  But Port was never a terribly well-defined character, and he had enormous motivation problems–he just seems to be wandering for the sake of wandering, helping people for the sake of helping them.   It’s like The Fugitive, only he’s not running from anybody, except maybe himself.  And Rabe, for all his remarkable strengths as a writer, didn’t know the mystery genre in all its permutations the way Donald Westlake did.  Few ever have.

Still, Westlake could have looked at the books and seen the germ of an idea–a free-floating protagonist, jack-of-all trades, who flits from one setting to another, improvising his way through.  A chance to experiment with form, to take each sub-genre apart and find out what makes it tick.  By the time of his second appearance in The Handle, Grofield was already a far more interesting character than Port ever was.  Maybe what didn’t work with Port would suit Grofield, the actor (accustomed to quick changes), very well indeed.

And if not, what’s four books to a guy who ultimately wrote over a hundred?   When you’re Donald Westlake, you can afford to venture down the odd cul-de-sac, just to see where it ends.

The Dame picks up right where The Damsel left off (and echoes it in ways other than the choice of title).  Grofield, still in Mexico, has finished saying a long sexy goodbye to Elly Fitzgerald, his companion from the previous book, who is not only okay with him going back to his wife Mary (the Penelope in this hardboiled Odyssey), but actually offers to take Grofield’s share of the loot from the Cockaigne heist back to Mary for him–Grofield worries about what Mary will think about an attractive young blonde showing up bearing money from her long-absent husband, and Elly says she’ll wear support stockings, so Mary will feel sorry for her.  Just in case anybody thought this was going to be an exercise in literary realism.

The reason Grofield can’t bring the money back himself is that he’s gotten a message from General Pozos, the military dictator of Guerrero, one of Westlake’s many fictional countries.   Grofield had just helped Elly save the General’s life, and the General had reciprocated by helping him with traveling papers, so he can get back home, but now Pozos seems to think he’s got a job Grofield would be interested in.  Not for him, but for somebody else Grofield doesn’t even know.

Grofield doesn’t need the money–he’s got enough cash to fund his theater for a year or so, and it’s stupid for a heister to work more than he has to (which Parker said was a problem of Grofield’s).  But he’s curious.  The job is in Puerto Rico.  It’s not that far away.   Why not go check it out?  What could happen?   Thinks the guy who in just the last few weeks has been shot multiple times during a casino heist, then dragged into an assassination plot involving mobsters and a former governor.  Let’s just say that Daniel Port isn’t the only series character who has motivation problems sometimes.

Grofield goes, I guess you could say, because he’s an actor, and actors can’t afford to pass up jobs too often.  But really, he’s going because there’s no story if he doesn’t.   Honestly, part of me thinks I’d have rather seen what happened when Elly met Mary–do support stockings really elicit sympathy from jealous wives?   But we aren’t going to see Mary again until the very last book in this series (and she’s worth the wait).

So he ventures off to lovely Puerto Rico, a setting Westlake used quite often (Parker and Claire were vacationing in San Juan just recently), presumably because he spent a deal of time there, escaping the northern winter, like thousands of half-frozen NYC gringos are doing right now (would I were among them).

Like The Damsel before it (and our next book as well), this book reads like a sardonic travelogue, genuinely admiring the beauty of a foreign clime, while still far from blind to its drawbacks.   Mr. Westlake did love the tropics–though I must note, few of his best books take place in them.   Still, no writer can be blamed for combining business with pleasure–taking mental notes while he travels, storing up ideas and settings for future books.

Grofield rents a car, and follows his directions to an isolated house in the countryside, where a good-looking 40-ish woman named Belle Danamato turns out to be his prospective employer–and the job is no good.  She’s clearly in fear of somebody–the house and its grounds are filled with armed men, and one German Shepherd, who gazes longingly at Grofield’s throat.  It turns out Belle wants Grofield to guard her body when she goes out, and to do other things to her body when she’s at home.  It’s a nice enough body, but it’s not his kind of job, and her domineering attitude rubs him the wrong way.

He walks out on her, and then gets picked up by a different group of armed men (one of whom seems to be very gay, and he’s the most dangerous one), who want to know why he’s there.  He tells them.  They take his rental car (mainly just to be pissy about it), and he has to walk back to the house, and spend the night there.  Before he does so, he disarms Belle’s main security guy, and points his gun right at her, demanding an apology, which she gives him–grudgingly.  Actors.  So temperamental.

At dinner, he meets her house guests, who consist of Onum Marba, a quiet self-confident man from a small African country named Undurwa, as fictional as Guerrero, which will figure in the next book; Belle’s lawyer George Milford, his wife Eva, and the Chelm siblings–Roy and Patricia.   And these, in case you hadn’t figured it out, are the murder suspects, because this is a classic parlor mystery, ala Dame Agatha.

Belle is found murdered in her room later that night, and Grofield, having threatened her with a gun just a few hours before, is detained by her security staff.  Her husband, a gambling kingpin named B.G. Danamato, was the guy Belle was scared might have her killed, since she was leaving him, and a lot of his property is in her name, for tax purposes.  His men were the ones who took Grofield’s car, thus forcing him to stay the night there.  Grofield initially figures he’s being framed for Belle’s death, and will be handed over to the law.

But B.G., one of Westlake’s overly emotional mob bosses (I believe the fourth thus far, and the second obsessed with learning the truth about the murder of a woman he loved–remember Ernie Rembek from the first Mitch Tobin mystery?), never had any intention of killing her, and is grief stricken over her death.  He won’t rest easy until he’s found the killer and administered justice–personally.

And one guess who he thinks the culprit is.  Grofield, his usual persuasive self, is able to plant a few doubts in B.G’s mind–what was his motive?  B.G. had sized Grofield up as some kind of bohemian hophead, who killed his wife in a drug-induced frenzy, but Grofield lets him know appearances are always deceptive in his case.

Danamato said “You scored?  What kind of score.”

“Money,” Grofield said.  I take money for a living.”

“What are you, a burglar?”

Grofield shook his head.  “I’m in the heavy.”

Danamato studied him.  “You don’t look it.”

“Thank you.”

Being in the illegal gambling business himself, just like the less emotional Walter Karns, Danamato had heard about the Cockaigne heist a few weeks earlier, though he’s vague on the details.  The fact that Grofield has nearly killed one of his top men with a sudden blow to his nose is further evidence Grofield is who and what he says he is.  His Actor’s Equity card is a source of confusion to all of them, but he’s used to people not believing in the actor/heister thing.  Would you?

The job done on Belle doesn’t look like the work of a pro, so maybe Grofield is innocent–B.G. agrees, grudgingly, to interrogate the other five people who could possibly have done Belle in, and Grofield is quite determined to hang the murder on one of them–he doesn’t care who.   As he says later, he doesn’t give a damn whodunit–he just wants to persuade B.G. it wasn’t him.  Truth be damned–he just wants to go on living.   But B.G. has taken a strong disliking to Grofield, and will need very strong evidence to let him go–more than just a reasonable doubt.

So one by one, the other guests are brought in to talk to these two very unlikely detectives, and it turns out they all had possible motives to kill her.  Well, that’s always the way in this kind of story, isn’t it?   Grofield, trying to trip up the killer, manages to antagonize each and every one of them, with the exception of Marba–the two immediately understand each other. Both affable rogues.

Marba’s potential motive is pretty weak, anyway–he was trying to persuade Belle to invest money in legalized gambling casinos in his country, and he might have killed her when he found out she wasn’t going to–but that’s not really a good enough reason, is it?  Westlake obviously only has him there to set up the next book, which he must have written around the same time.

Roy Chelm was engaged to Belle–B.G. is convinced she’d never have actually gone through with it–but they were not sleeping together, since Roy is a complete and total prig, and doesn’t believe in sex before marriage.  His sister Patricia (she prefers Pat) seems equally prim and proper, but Grofield finds her quite attractive all the same–doesn’t stop him from trying to get her to admit she killed Belle out of repressed sexual jealousy.

Grofield really is quite the bastard in this one, almost everybody in the book says so repeatedly, and he cheerfully admits to it with his typical aplomb.  It’s never been more clear that he’s as cold-blooded as Parker when it comes to getting what he wants–but somehow it’s easier to dislike Grofield for it than it is Parker, because he’s so–human.

(Sidebar: In her excellent introduction to the Grofield novels for U. of Chicago’s reprint editions, Sarah Weinman makes note of what she considers the misogyny in this book–but I don’t agree.  It’s misanthropy.  Grofield is a chauvinist, certainly–in the same sense that James Bond is, and in much the same manner, though with a lot less chivalrous pretense–but he treats women no worse than men, and probably a bit better, at least if they’re attractive, which is of course a very good description of sexism. But not misogyny.  Grofield is not in any way inclined to see men as the superior sex. He knows too much about men to believe that.

Weinman finds Parker much easier to take, and I’ve noted in the past that Parker’s much more horrible behavior is somehow less offputting, because we identify so strongly with him–women as much as men–and are therefore inclined to excuse whatever he does, because it’s such a tempting fantasy, not giving a damn about anything.  Grofield is not so easy to project oneself into, since there’s all kinds of things he gives a damn about, so his merely caddish behavior comes across as worse than Parker striking his wife, then goading her to suicide, then mutilating her face, and feeling no guilt over it ever afterward.

One further thing I’d like to point out–Ms. Weinman is certainly free to see misogyny in the book, and in the case of Belle she may have a real point, but Pat Chelm’s last name–an apparent reference to a tradition in European Jewish storytelling, relating to a Polish town named Chelm, where the inhabitants are all fools–doesn’t really count as evidence of this.  The only character referred to as ‘Chelm’ in this book is Roy, and he well merits the description.  Westlake was often drawn to Jewish humor, so I have no trouble believing the reference is intentional–there’s a similar tradition in Irish humor, though in both traditions, it’s not always so easy to know who the joke is really on.  But I digress.)

George Milford doesn’t really have a motive–unless he was sleeping with Belle, and if he was, his wife would also have a motive, particularly since the only reason they’re here in the first place is that George ruined himself professionally by running away with a high school girl.  Grofield presses both of them pretty hard, but when all is said and done, he can’t persuade B.G., and B.G. needs to kill somebody.   Grofield has failed to present him with a good enough alternative.  Locked in a room he can’t get out of, Grofield is pretty damn sure he’s going to be the sacrificial lamb.

Then Pat shows up with an offer–she and her brother are both non-drivers–she thinks B.G. will kill Roy just for having been involved with Belle–so even though she believes Grofield is the murderer, she’ll let him go in exchange for Grofield driving them both out of there.   They make their break successfully, but then run out of gas, and end up stranded in the El Yunque rainforest preserve.  Roy gets grabbed while trying to flag down a car, so now it’s just Grofield and Pat.  They make their way back to San Juan.  Yes of course they have sex now, it’s a Grofield novel.

See, it turns out Pat isn’t the virgin spinster Grofield assumed she was–she had an affair with a married man five years before, got pregnant, got abandoned, got an abortion, and she’s been under Roy’s wing ever since, trying to live up to his ridiculous expectations of sexual virtue.  Grofield asks if it isn’t time she got over it, and apparently this is also misogyny–I think it’s just rude.  But honest.  I mean, isn’t it one of the major points of feminism that having an abortion isn’t the end of the world, and you do eventually get over it?

Grofield genuinely likes Pat, and is quite honest and direct about his intention to get her in bed–though not about being married himself, because that would ruin his chances with her (breaking with his past tendency to tell women he’s trying to seduce about Mary in advance of the seduction).

He would ditch her in a moment and make a run for it if he could, but she’s made it clear she’d rat him out if he tried–she needs him to rescue Roy.  He could always kill her–Parker would–but that’s just not him.  So if he’s going to risk his neck yet again, for a guy he’s truly come to loathe, he ought to at least get some illicit nookie into the bargain.  Fair is fair.  Richard Stark never lets his heroes look too bad, we should always remember.

Obviously it doesn’t hurt his case with her that he’s a charming good-looking actor.   And of course she needs some sexual healing, to coin a phrase.  There was a lot of this kind of writing going on back then, and there’s a lot of it going on now, and all we can say is that people seem to enjoy it.  And if you need any further evidence, check out the box office for that Fifty Shades movie this weekend.  Yes, I know, that’s different.   The writing is incalculably inferior, for one thing.   Donald Westlake, on the worst day of his life, puked better writing than E.L. James, and look who’s a multi-millionaire.  And you wonder why Grofield is such a cynic?  And I digress again, but this book really is not that easy to stay focused on.

So let me skip to the end, leaving out all the patented Grofieldian maneuvers, all very reminiscent of the last book, with its very similar title, and very similar love interest, and very similar stock villains.  Grofield tries to rescue Roy, but Roy (being such a Chelm) figures he’ll just give Grofield to B.G., thus winning his freedom–he doesn’t realize this will alienate his sister from him forever, even though Grofield specifically tells him that’s what will happen.  So Grofield is right back where he started–his neck squarely on the chopping block.

Grofield has figured out who the killer was by now, and has churlishly refused to tell us, but now he’s got no choice–it’s not a scientific deduction, but an emotional one.   Who would have been angry enough at Belle Danamato to kill her, and would have also lacked the self-control to refrain from doing so?   He’s figured it out, but he’s got no way of proving it to B.G., who assumes he’s just trying to save his neck, which in all fairness Grofield has admitted to being his overriding concern from the get-go.

Grofield’s only hope is to explain what happened, and why, and hope the killer will confess to avoid having another death on his or her conscience.   And honestly, I’d tell you who it was, except I don’t care any more than Grofield does.  The killer does (not too improbably) ‘fess up, and Grofield is released.  He and Pat take a few days R&R at the beach, and then he heads back home to Mary at last.

And of course Pat, who is done with Roy for keeps, is now sexually free and not expecting any commitment from Grofield, who clearly isn’t husband material–she’ll just find somebody else to frolic in the sun with.   He doesn’t tell her about Mary, who has probably already received shipment of his share of the Cockaigne score from his girlfriend of the previous book.

He’s had affairs with three different beautiful young blondes since he last saw his wife a few weeks before, parted with all three women on the best of terms, and shortly he’ll waltz in the door, and take his equally lovely wife to bed, and never so much as hear the word ‘divorce’ mentioned.   Okay, I’m not saying Sarah Weinman doesn’t have any valid points to make, you understand.

But the thing about unapologetic cads is that they’re unapologetic cads.  You can accuse them of a whole lot of things, but not hypocrisy.   Let us not forget this is a series of books about an actor who finances his career through armed robbery.  If you wanted realism–or morality–or 21st century inter-gender relations, such as they are–boy, did you come to the wrong play.   The Rake’s Progress, only without the decline and fall part.

So Grofield’s three-book Odyssey that began with The Handle has concluded, and you’d think he’d stay home with his Penelope a while, but what happened was that Westlake immediately published another novel, where yet another heist goes wrong, and Grofield gets sucked into yet another misadventure that has nothing to do with either of his professions, and I think Westlake was writing these things awfully fast.

Which is not to say they have nothing to offer–they are interesting experiments in form, and tone, and even character, but they do seem a lot like Westlake trying variations on things he had already written or was in the process of writing.  The playful tone of the Grofields is a nice break from Stark’s–starkness–but again, I don’t really feel like Westlake has figured out how to write as Stark when not writing about Parker.  Like The Damsel, this feels like a Stark novel ghostwritten by Westlake.  But once you’ve run out of Parkers to read, it does have its pleasures.

One thing about Grofield, as opposed to Parker–somehow, you do believe he can die.  There’s always this sense that he’s walking on very thin ice, almost all the time.  He keeps glancing nervously at us–or perhaps his creator–wondering if this time the curtain is coming down on him for keeps.  He’s very ‘meta’ in this regard, in a way Parker never was.  As I’ve mentioned before, he does wink at the audience–but it’s not a self-satisfied wink.   He’s like Buster Keaton in that famous scene from Sherlock Jr.–he never knows which change of setting will be his last.  But he’ll keep rolling with it, and trust that it all works out somehow.  He is the hero, after all.   Bastard though he is.

And bastard that I am, I’m going to cut this short now, and get back to Grofield in the next book–which is, in its own very odd way, a recap of Up Your Banners–only with a lot more gunplay and international intrigue, and a whole lot less social relevance and emotional involvement.  Not that there’s anything wrong with that.

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