Tag Archives: The Blackbird

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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