Tag Archives: Slayground

Review: Butcher’s Moon

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“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: Slayground

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A man, who had been hiding in the curtains of the bed, was standing there.

“Rainsford!” screamed the general. “How in God’s name did you get here?”

“Swam,” said Rainsford. “I found it quicker than walking through the jungle.”

The general sucked in his breath and smiled. “I congratulate you,” he said. “You have won the game.”

Rainsford did not smile. “I am still a beast at bay,” he said, in a low, hoarse voice. “Get ready, General Zaroff.”

From The Most Dangerous Game, by Richard Connell.

Thinking about Grofield had made him think of prison, and that had made him think of his own single experience that way, and now he went from that to the death of his wife, Lynn, which had been involved in that whole mix-up that time nine years ago, and from that he got to thinking about other people he knew that were dead now, and how few died of old age.  Dent, any day now, was going to be an exception.

There was a fellow named Salsa, very pretty but very tough.  One time in Galveston, when Parker had been staying briefly with a weird girl named Crystal, Salsa had said to him, “Your woman wishes to photograph me unclad.”  He’d been asking Parker’s permission, and Parker had said “What do I care?”  That was shortly before Salsa was dead, in a job they were all doing together on an island.  A real island, not a Fun Island.

Now he shook and sat up and stretched his arms up in the air and scratched his head.  “I’m getting like Dent,” he said out loud.  Sitting here thinking about dead people, as though his own life was over now.

It was having nothing to do.  It was stupid that they didn’t come in.  They should have come in a long time ago, in the daylight.  Now they had not only given him time to booby-trap the whole damn park against them, they’d given him darkness to hide in.  They were just making it tough on themselves.

I think this is either the fifth or the sixth time I’ve read Slayground cover to cover.   I’ve probably read it more times than any other Westlake book, not necessarily because I like it the best, but because it’s so short, and yet so packed with story, so endlessly re-readable–a weird timeless artifact of 70’s pop culture.

My battered Berkley Medallion paperback reprint, with the enjoyably stupid cover, seen above (What is that blonde in the bikini doing there, kneeling next to Parker?  Is that supposed to be a mannequin?) probably won’t survive a seventh reading.   I already had a colleague at the library do some repair work on it, but there are still pages falling out.   And yet the book itself, like its protagonist, remains indestructible.

You’ll note the other Berkley paperback up there (the Highland imprint)–much nicer cover, and an even more timeless story showcased there–the same story, really.  Not a coincidence.   Slayground is a rewrite of The Most Dangerous Game, by Richard Connell.  I’m not stating this as an opinion, though I’ve never seen any mention of it elsewhere.   It’s pretty damned obvious, so I’m stating it as a fact.

Why is Parker in an amusement park called “Fun Island”?  Why does he find a bunch of souvenir hunting knives he puts to good use (did family amusement parks really sell hunting knives as souvenirs in the early 70’s)?  Why is he setting booby traps everywhere, when we’ve never him do that before?  Why would Westlake tell such an odd improbable tale of one man being hunted like a wild animal in a relatively small space he can’t escape from?  Westlake was fascinated by the potential of Connell’s story, and felt like it hadn’t been thoroughly enough explored in that very brief third-person narrative, and that Parker would be the ideal protagonist with which to make that exploration.

Richard Connell may not quite have been a one-hit wonder–among other things, he wrote a number of screenplays for movies people still watch today–but as a prose writer, I think he’s pretty much entirely remembered for that one endlessly anthologized and adapted tale of survival–as neat a bit of storytelling as anyone’s ever managed in this imperfect world.  For the bulk of his career, he was not actually known for this kind of story–he mainly did light comedy–imagine if James Thurber wasn’t a genius, and you’ve got a pretty good idea of his usual thing.  But somehow or other, he did manage one brief moment of sheer inspiration, and that will remain when most of what he and his contemporaries wrought is dust.

And yet, the story is all based on a series of coincidences–Rainsford, the prototypical  ‘great white hunter’, who was just having a conversation with a fellow hunter about whether animals might possibly object to being hunted, just happens to fall off the yacht he’s traveling on, and washes up on an island where a mad Cossack general has devoted his retirement to hunting shipwrecked sailors for sport.  The general knows who Rainsford is, is delighted to finally have a worthy opponent, and is not overly concerned with Rainsford’s forlorn objection that he is the hunter, not the huntee.  If you don’t know what happens after that, I have to wonder if you’ve been stranded on some desert island for most of your life.  They finally got wifi there, huh?

A story like this is contrived by its very nature, but it’s a bit too contrived–is there some way to make it more organic, less obviously just a set-up for a thrilling tale of adventure, with the odd moment of philosophizing?  And might it work better if the hunter turned hunted is not some silly thrill-seeking sportsman, but rather a wolf in human form?   And the people hunting him had practical reasons for doing so?

Like I said, I’ve read this book like half a dozen times, and I’ve yet to find a plot hole–not one moment where I can honestly say “This doesn’t make sense” or “Why would he do that?”  Believe it, don’t believe it (and since when has believability been the hallmark of a series of books about a man whose powerful sex drive totally disappears between robberies and he doesn’t care?), but if you can find a flaw in it anywhere, I doff my hat to you.  It’s a cunning little mousetrap of a book; as much so as any Agatha Christie whodunnit.

As we’ve already discussed, it shares an opening with The Blackbird, Grofield’s third solo adventure, which is why the copyright notice up front has to refer to that book from a different publisher, even though that chapter has been rewritten from Parker’s POV.  Parker, Grofield, and Laufman, their incompetent driver who insists he knows how to drive perfectly well, hit an armored car in an unnamed midwestern city.  The driver calls the cops in with his wireless phone, and as they get the cash (about 73k), they can hear sirens in the distance.  Laufman panics, drives too fast, flips the car, leaving Grofield unconscious, and Laufman mortally injured. Parker grabs the money, and runs for the nearest hiding place–a large amusement park shut down for the winter.

As Parker jumps the gate, he sees two uniformed cops and two guys in civilian duds watching him.  None of them do anything to stop him.  As he waits in there for the law–and no law shows–he realizes gradually that the cops were dirty, and the other guys were mobsters paying them off–and over the radio, he learns that the cops falsely reported that he’d stolen a car and made a getaway, putting the law on a false trail.  So now he’s not fighting for his freedom but his life–they’ll come in after the money, and eliminate him as a matter of course.  No way they can leave him alive–if he gets picked up by the law, that makes trouble for everybody.

But for reasons he can only guess at, they don’t come in right away–they give him quite a few hours to walk around the amusement park, familiarize himself with the terrain, and make certain preparations for their arrival.   He’s only got one gun–Smith & Wesson Terrier, his old standby–five shots, only good at close range.  He does find a dozen hunting knives (well-balanced, suitable for throwing) at the gift shop, and some other useful things here and there.   (Okay, you can say the knives are a bit unlikely–I already did–but that’s hardly a plot hole–it’s a tip of the hat to Richard Connell, and the excellent hunting knife General Zaroff provides to Rainsford, just to make things sporting).

As he combs the park looking for anything that might keep him alive, we get a thorough tour of the place–it’s a theme park, a sort of cut-rate Disneyland (Disney World was nearing completion in Florida when this book came out).  It also has the standard fairground attractions, like a hall of mirrors.  Many different sections, each of which has its own motif–nostalgia, futurism, pirates, etc.  Lots of blacklight rides, which offer Parker places to hide himself and his money.  It’s not a real island, but it might as well be–completely surrounded by a high fence with electrified wire at the top.  He can’t go out the way he came in, because they’ve got guys posted there with guns.

Most of Part One is him reconnoitering, but there’s also a quick flashback to explain what he’s doing there in the first place.  As with the last job in Deadly Edge, he bought a ‘package’ from a guy who plans out heists and sells them to active heisters, because he won’t or can’t do them himself (this was an old idea in crime fiction–there’s a guy like this in the Cagney film White Heat, though he’s getting a percentage, not cash upfront).

Somehow, in all of the 24 Parker novels, Parker never once has an idea for a job and plans it out himself–unless it’s to get even with somebody, as in The Outfit.  He’s oddly passive and reactive that way.  It’s pretty much always something that gets pitched to him, by pro or amateur, and then maybe he works out the fine details, how to make it work–in this case, he just gets a call, checks it out, and pays the guy.  The job is perfectly fine; it’s the driver that screws it up.   If they’d had Mike Carlow behind the wheel, they’d be heading for home with their splits by now.  Mike’s probably still in stir.

The planner is Dent, a retired heistman, who is on his last legs–he tells Parker his ‘elevens’ are up, and that’s an archaic reference from a bygone era, which you can read a little about here and here.  The interesting thing is that Parker seems to totally believe in this medically questionable bit of barroom lore–when the tendons on the back of your neck stand out like an eleven, you are going to die soon.

It’s a surprisingly durable phrase in popular culture, but it seems to have died out as a matter of popular belief–I used to room with an Irish guy who tended bar in The Bronx for years, and he says he never once heard of this.   Maybe somebody somewhere still believes it, but the only point of bringing it up here is that Dent meekly accepts his fate–but Parker refuses to accept his.  His elevens aren’t up yet, and he’ll do whatever he has to in order to get back to New Jersey and Claire.

So as Part One ends, Parker sees a group of men grab the just-arriving night watchman, and he knows–it’s showtime.

Then comes the classic Stark rewind, but with a twist–first of all, it’s in Part Two.  Secondly, it’s from the perspective of other characters besides Parker–not a flashback, but a retelling of the past few hours from the perspective of the men who are going to be hunting Parker.  The cops and the mobsters.   Why did they take so long coming in?   Because the two cops, O’Hara and Dunstan, were called away to be on a roadblock, looking for the guy they had reported driving away in a hijacked car.

The leader of this mismatched hunting party is Caliato, an up and coming mafioso, ambitious and smart, and patiently waiting his turn to take over from Mr. Lozini, the current head of the local mob.  He smells money, and instantly tells the officers to radio in to headquarters, saying that they gave chase to the robber, after he commandeered a car, and they lost him (I guess it could be a bit fishy that nobody would ever report a car stolen, but that’s easy enough to explain away–some small time crook, not wanting to talk to the law).  He needs their help to make this work, so the cops both get a cut.  He gets Lozini’s okay over his car phone–as long as he keeps it quiet, his initiative is to be applauded.

O’Hara is very eager to get his split–Dunstan, younger and not really corrupt, just going along the past of least resistance, is less happy about this arrangement–he knows they are going to have to kill the guy (O’Hara just refuses to think about it).  But if he doesn’t want to rat–and he really doesn’t, for sound pragmatic reasons–he has to go along with it.  He’s one of those characters whose physical description sounds an awful lot like Westlake himself, and there are other reasons to think he’s a bit of a self-portrait–Westlake’s idea of what kind of a cop he might have made (not a very good one).

Lozini dispatches three men to help his lieutenant out–they’ll be working strictly on salary, a hundred each.  They are not supposed to know that Caliato and the cops are splitting it three-ways.   So for about six hours, they sit there in the cold, outside the gate, waiting for the cops to get off-duty.  They grab the night watchman when he goes on-duty, making sure he doesn’t get a look at any of them (he gets a POV chapter too).  As Part Two winds down, we’ve met all the  major players, and now it’s time to start the game.

Caliato figures there’s two possibilities–the guy with the money, knowing he’s trapped, will come out meekly when the tame cops call him out with a bullhorn.  Or he’ll just hide and they have to come find him.  He dies either way.   What Caliato didn’t count on was that when Dunstan tells him to come out, Parker hits a switch, and the funhouse explodes into life, light and sound blazing out into the darkness, scaring the bejeebers out of everybody, even Caliato a bit.

They go in after him, figuring he must be in there–well, that’s just what he figured they’d do.   The hall of mirrors is in there–and Parker spray-painted a white circle onto all the mirrors.   So he knows anybody who doesn’t have that white circle over his chest is real, not a reflection.  It’s a temporary edge, but a potent one.  Part Two ends with Parker shooting Caliato–and he was so sure he was the hero of the story, the tough mob enforcer.  Should have checked the cover of the book.

Seriously, this is a major head-fake–in a movie, you know a character like Caliato would be the last to die–off all the people Parker is up against here, he was the smartest, the most capable, the one who got this whole hunt started–he was also the one who knew Fun Island best–the mob has a piece of the action there, you see.

But he’d been giving orders too long–he’d lost his edge, thinking about how he was going to be the Big Boss someday–and then he abruptly decided to take the watchman’s confiscated gun, and go hunting along with the disposable hoods under his command.   He isn’t that guy anymore–he’s just a suit now.  He forgot.  You don’t get to forget things like that in a Richard Stark novel.

So as Part Three begins, we’re back in Parker’s head to stay–and in spite of his early triumph, he’s still bucking the odds.  He needs every last bit of the advantage he got from having all that time to prepare.  O’Hara comes at him in the dark, and they grapple, and fall into a few feet of water–cold water.  Parker’s clothing is soaked, and it’s freezing out there.  O’Hara can go warm up, but he can’t.  And he lost his gun in the struggle.  Now all he’s got is two knives.  And much as he may be a wolf on the inside, he’s still a man on the outside, and he has to get warm or he’ll die.

So he finds a store that sells men’s clothing, and there’s still a bit of stock left–light summer clothes, but it’ll have to do.  He can’t get warm, but he avoids freezing–and as day breaks, he hears the cop’s bullhorn again–only this time it’s a new voice–Lozini.  Caliato was his chosen heir–in effect, his son.  He wants revenge–to hell with the money.  He’s brought a lot more men into the hunt.  They are going to keep coming until Parker is dead.  Great.

So what follows in Part Four is a topsy-turvy chase through the surrealistic world of the amusement park, Parker playing every ace he’s got, and just barely staying ahead of the hunters.  There’s a scene in a theater that makes you wonder if maybe Westlake originally intended this story for Grofield (just have to write the beginning a little differently)–how would Parker be so familiar with the mechanics of a stage?  Not a plot hole, just wondering.  He could have robbed a theater before we met him.  Grofield can also be very resourceful, but somehow it just wouldn’t work as well with him, would it?  Grofield isn’t a beast at bay.

And as Parker keeps ahead of his pursuers, fighting off hunger, cold, fatigue, looking for a chance to break out of this cage, he manages to pick isolated members of the hunting party off, one by one–in person, and through his traps.  And they are starting to become afraid of him.  He’s good with those knives.  He kills one guy with a thrown knife who was surveying the park from one of those cable sky-rides.  And I thought those things were supposed to be 100% safe.

But he still needs a gun.   Then he finds two mobsters in the wax museum.   He takes one wax figure out of a jury box, and takes its place.  Works like a charm–and no, that scene is not in the book version of The Man With the Golden Gun–and the movie was a few years off.  Hmm.  Well, the funhouse scene was right out of The Lady From Shanghai. Take a little, give a little.   Anyway–

Parker stepped out in view.  They both had their backs turned.  He set himself, his right hand holding one of the knives up behind his ear, and then threw.

This was a closer target than the other one, and more stationary.  Parker finished the throwing movement and stepped quickly back out of sight again, switching the other knife to his right hand.

He heard it hit, and heard Ed grunt, and heard Ed fall.  If he had Tommy figured right, he would just stand there now, unable to think for a few seconds, too paralyzed by fear to do anything sensible.  A few seconds was all Parker would need.

He stepped out again, and Ed was face-down on the carpet, his left leg stuck up in the air behind him, left ankle hooked over the velvet rope he’d been stepping over when the knife hit him.  And Tommy was staring down at him in disbelief, just the way Parker had thought.

But before he could get set again, Tommy moved.  He didn’t look around, he didn’t fire any shots, he didn’t yell.  All he did was run.  He turned and ran like hell in the opposite direction.

The coward may die a thousand imaginary deaths, but he avoids the real one, more often than not.  Running is still the best survival strategy there is.  Parker’s been using it himself, all through the book, but now he’s got Ed’s Colt Commander .38, with a nine bullet clip, so the game has changed.

Yeah sure, I’ve got time to grab an image–sometimes I think there are more pictures of naked guns than naked women on the internet.  Sometimes that worries me, but comes in handy when you’re reviewing a Parker novel.

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So now we’re in endgame.  Parker finds a way to use Fun Island’s canal system, part of a boat ride attraction, to get past most of Lozini’s men, and get near the gates.  Which are guarded, of course–but he’s got an idea.  The cops had to go off for a bit, to avoid their superiors noticing they aren’t actually doing their jobs.  Now they’re back.  Parker braces them with the Commander, and makes O’Hara strip–then ties him up–then puts on his uniform.  He tells Dunstan that he’s going to pretend he’s taking his injured partner out to get medical attention.  Dunstan, like Tommy, appreciates the virtues of cowardice.

So they’re making their way out, and then Lozini shows up in a golf cart–he was a bit harsh with O’Hara earlier, they had words, he wants to make up for it.  He gives them a ride outside.   Parker almost gets to kill him, but turns out Lozini is a coward too, even though he’s been talking it up how he’s going to kill this punk heister with his bare hands once he gets him.  When he realizes this is the punk heister, he runs like hell, and yells for his flunkies, who come out shooting, but Parker’s in the squad car by then, having shot out the tires of the mob cars, and he’s moving too fast for them to hit him.  He reaches the car he and his partners had stashed for the second part of the getaway.  Dry clothes inside.  He drives for an hour before he even stops to change.

Last chapter is him making it back to Colliver Pond–he goes to sit out on the back porch, taking the sun–sees children biking over the frozen lake, with a dog skidding after them–very Norman Rockwell (and just like the actual Norman Rockwell, things are never as wholesome as they seem).  Claire gets home, and for once, he’s not in the mood for sex after a job–that’s how she knows he’s had a really tough couple of days at the office.  She wants to hear the whole story, and he gives it to her–she doesn’t seem much perturbed by his close call–he’s here now.   At this point, Claire probably thinks Parker could survive anything.   We’re not so sure she’s wrong.

It’s hardly a triumph, as he sees it.  He couldn’t get back to the money.   It’s still hidden (without any evident sense of irony) inside a boat full of fake pirates in one of the blacklight rides.  If the mobsters want it badly enough, they’ll find out where it is.  But Parker knows where they are too.   When he’s ready, he’ll get his money.  One way or another.   This isn’t over, as far as he’s concerned.  But it can wait.

So if you’ve read the book, you know how much I left out of that–how many little vignettes, detailed descriptions, intricate maneuvers, and most of all the characters–lots and lots of characters, and not just your standard disposable action movie ‘red shirts’.   You don’t necessarily feel sorry for them, but you do realize they’re people.  They want to go home as much as Parker does.

But what’s different is that all of them, to one extent or another, are organization men–cops and mobsters.  Cops who work for mobsters.  Dogs heeding their master’s voice, but of the ones who get developed, who are the ones that make it?  The ones that listen to the little voice inside that says “screw the boss, I want to live.”  Obviously complicated by the fact that this particular boss might kill them too, so they can’t just say “hell no, I won’t go.”

Parker himself is no coward, but he spends most of the book running–never once stands and fights, unless he has no choice, or the situation is advantageous to him.  He never fools himself about his nature, as Rainsford does at the beginning of The Most Dangerous Game–yes, he’s a hunter (he’s The Hunter), but all so-called ‘apex predators’ can be hunted in their turn, and their response to that is usually to turn tail and flee, if they can.  Only humans are ever stupid enough to think they have dealt themselves out of the game of life and death. This is very much along the lines of what we were told in Deadly Edge–all that matters is survival.  He lives to fight another day because he runs away.  It just happens he looks incredibly cool running away, because Richard Stark is writing this book.

Now there’s no need to read anything more into this than what it is–an homage to a legendary short story, and a cracking good survival yarn in its own right.  But with Westlake, it may never be quite that simple.  He’s tricky that way.  He likes to sneak those messages in there.

What’s going on in the early 70’s–well, young American men are dying–a whole lot of them–not in an amusement park–in a distant jungle-covered country, that was supposed to be a walk in the park for the most powerful nation on earth.  We went in there with every possible material and strategic advantage–except we didn’t know the terrain well enough.   We didn’t know our enemy well enough.   We didn’t know ourselves well enough.  And what were the Viet Cong best known for?   Booby traps.  Hmm.  Well, it’s just a thought.

There’s lots of more obvious ‘easter eggs’ in there–like when Parker disappears inside the theater–we know how he did it, but the mob guys can’t figure it out–Dunstan, a fan of mystery novels, says that in a locked-room mystery, the solution would be that the guy they were after was one of them all along–that’s why they couldn’t find him, because he just blended back into their ranks.  It’s a great idea.  It’s also the kind of thing that only happens in mystery novels (like, for example, Tucker Coe novels).

It always surprises me a bit that the two cops, O’Hara and Dunstan, make it out of the book alive.  Of course, if either man died, it would raise too many questions, expose too many secrets–and Westlake clearly intended Parker to come back to this small midwestern city in the near future (which is not Buffalo NY, no matter what Darwyn Cooke says–I’m sure he had some good reason for doing that, but Buffalo never had an amusement park, and we’re told very specifically that Parker is two thousand miles away from the house in New Jersey–Buffalo is a long drive from Northwestern New Jersey, but not that long).

O’Hara in particular seems absolutely ripe for a comeuppance, feeling as he does that he has every right to consider himself a cop while being in the employ of criminals.  It’s him Parker is reacting to when he thinks “Cops tend to have pride where their brains ought to be”, watching him having it out with an enraged Lozini in the theater, and eventually deciding he’d rather be a live flunky than a dead hero.  And he makes the same choice when Parker points a gun at him and tells him to strip–survival winning out over pride once more.  So I guess he earned his right to go on living a while longer–as Stark sees it.  Doesn’t get any of that money though.  Who does?  That’s a few books off yet.

Right around this time, Westlake may have been starting to work up a very different (and in my opinion, even better) crime story (originally in screenplay format), also involving cops and mobsters, but there the cops are the heroes–well, that’s not quite the right word.  I’ll see if I can find a better one.  He did like to multi-task–and ideas from one project would invariably slop over into some of the others.  As I’ve said, one of the reasons I am sticking to rough chronological order (exact chronological order being almost impossible to figure out, given all the multi-tasking)  is to pick up on this kind of thing, that can easily be overlooked if you’re reading the books out of order.

I hope we get a vigorous discussion in the comments section, because I feel certain I’ve left some good stuff out.  But maybe it’s time to let this one go, because next up in the queue is another deceptively short book with even more twists and turns in it, a wealth of details, not to mention a black bi-sexual gourmet safecracker, along with the debut of a certain chain-smoking check-out girl, and I’m going to need some time to process this one.   Yeah, Dortmunder’s back.  And he’s back to stay.  You can take that to the bank.  Or hey–why not just take the bank?

PS: I don’t really love the cover for the Italian edition up top (that guy is way too pretty to be Parker), but I had to include it, for the glory of that pun–“Luna-Parker”.  Which means one thing in Italian, but another thing entirely in English, if you know your Coney Island history.  See you in Dreamland.

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Filed under Donald Westlake novels, Parker Novels