Tag Archives: The Green Eagle Score

The Green Eagle Score, Part 2

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Godden’s office,” Parker said.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Filed under Donald Westlake novels

Review: The Green Eagle Score

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She said in answer to his question, “His name is Parker. I don’t know what his first name is, nobody said. I don’t like him.”

“Why not?”

“He’s–I don’t know, I look at him and I think he’s evil. But that isn’t right, exactly, I don’t think he’s evil. I mean, I don’t think he’d ever be cruel or anything like that, for the fun of it. I wouldn’t worry about leaving Pam around him, for instance. But–I know.”

“Yes?”

“He wouldn’t hurt Pam, but he wouldn’t care about her either. If something bad happened to her, he wouldn’t be pleased by it, but he wouldn’t try to do anything to help her. Unless he saw some gain for himself in it.”

“You mean he seems cold?”

“He doesn’t care. There’s no emotion there.”

“Oh well,” Dr. Godden said, and even though she wasn’t looking at him she could hear the gentle smile in his voice, “everyone has emotions. We all have them–you, me, everyone. Even this man Parker. Maybe he has them bottled up more than most people, that’s all.”

As you’ve probably noticed, I like comparing Westlake’s books to other books, particularly when I think I’ve found one that Westlake used as a model for his own.  But some books of his are so unique, it’s hard for me to find any real parallel.  This is one of those.  In terms of its story, its characters, I don’t know of any book that strongly influenced The Green Eagle Score. Maybe you do.  But I think we all know this is not the first or the most famous novel about a master criminal robbing a U.S. military base.

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But damned if I can find any similarity other than the idea of pulling a heist on Uncle Sam. Maybe the novel (and later the film) gave Westlake the germ of that idea, maybe not.  But the story he told could not have been more different–and far as I’m concerned, better.   Certainly more believable, not that one should ever judge Ian Fleming by that standard.  That wouldn’t be cricket.

Fleming wrote pure fantasy–Richard Stark is certainly fantasizing as well, but in a more grounded, tangible, ‘maybe this could actually happen’ sort of way.  Unlike Fleming, he writes from the criminal’s perspective, and his mastermind is not a bizarre wealthy egotist trying to prove a point, but a hard-eyed workman doing his job.  And one more thing–Fleming did some research on Fort Knox, I’m sure, but nobody’s expecting a plausible heist out of him–I can’t find any mention of his ever having been there.  Westlake spent several years of his life on Air Force bases.   He went into this one already knowing much of what he needed to know.

The United States Air Force had existed as a separate branch of the military for less than a decade when Westlake joined up.  Serving in peacetime, his military service seems to have consisted mainly of short stints on bases in Germany and elsewhere–flying back and forth over the Atlantic, doing drudge work, writing in his spare time.  And dealing with authority figures of varying types and qualities on a daily basis, because that’s what military life is. He doesn’t seem to have made many (if any) lasting friendships there.  If his unpublished autobiography ever sees the light of day, maybe we’ll learn more about that part of his life.

But for now, we can look at his fiction, and notice how many of his characters have had some military experience. Parker himself served in the Army in World War II (apparently joining up in his early teens, which isn’t as implausible as it sounds), but was discharged from the service for black-market activities. Grofield was in the army.  Ray Kelly had just gotten out of the service at the start of 361. Samuel Holt was an M.P. before he became a cop, then an actor, then a reluctant detective. Just a few examples out of dozens.  He liked to use that as a starting point for his heroes.

But Westlake never wrote a single book centered around an active-service military man (or woman), unless you count A Girl Called Honey, a ‘sleaze’ novel he co-wrote with Lawrence Block.  Westlake and Block each created a character to vie for the affections of the titular seductress, and Westlake’s was a scrawny Air Force grunt named Richie Parsons, who hates the Air Force, steals from his fellow servicemen, and then goes AWOL, which is how he meets the aforementioned seductress.  I don’t think it’s a self-portrait, exactly, but no doubt Westlake was expressing his own feelings there–he wasn’t impressed with the USAF, or most of the people in it. To be a military man is to be a cog in a machine.  It’s no place for an individualist.  I’m sure George Patton would have disagreed, but of course he was running the machine.

One other thing–we now know, thanks to The Getaway Car, that Westlake was arrested for stealing a microscope while in college. Given his age, seems plausible he had a bit of counseling after that experience–maybe saw a psychiatrist or two.  And I’d guess the Air Force had some psychological screening in place by the time he was there, though probably not much.

There’s a different kind of authority figure–the ‘headshrinker’–somebody who pries into your deepest thoughts and emotions, and in some cases tells you (in that prototypical passive aggressive ‘how did that make you feel?’ sort of way) what’s going on inside your noodle–trying to fit you into his little Freudian templates.  And how do you think that made Westlake feel? Not very well-disposed towards psychiatrists.

We’ve already seen his attitude towards that profession in Pity Him Afterwards.  And we’re going to see it again here. And yet there’s a lot of very good psycho-analysis in this book, albeit applied to some less than noble ends. Westlake might have been more impressed than he let on.

The book opens with a classic bit of Starkian prose, though we’re still missing the “When such-and-such happened, Parker did something” opening of the first eight books.

Parker looked at the beach and there was a guy in a black suit standing there, surrounded by all the bodies in bathing suits. He was standing near Parker’s gear, not facing anywhere in particular, and he looked like a rip in the picture. The hotel loomed up behind him, white and windowed, the Puerto Rican sun beat down, the sea foamed white on the beach, and he stood there like a homesick mortician.

That mortician is Marty Fusco, a fellow heister, who just finished a stretch in prison and is looking for a quick score to get back on his feet. The character is a lot like Lempke from The Rare Coin Score, but unlike his predecessor, he hasn’t lost his nerve–just his wife, Ellen.  She divorced him when he was in prison, and eventually took up with Stan Devers, a handsome cocky young gent currently finishing a stretch in (wait for it) the Air Force. He works in the payroll office.

Stan’s stationed at a base outside Monequois–a recurring fictional burg somewhere in upstate New York we see referenced in various Westlake books, but this can’t be the same Monequois we saw in The Seventh. That was a college town, around the size of Binghamton–and no way Parker would ever go back there to pull a job after the events of that book.  So Westlake is just reusing the name, as he already had several times before, because he likes it (I think he made it up himself–it’s supposed to be an old Indian name, but there never was any such tribe as the Monequois, in New York or anywhere else).  This version of Monequois is a small sleepy place, dominated by the much larger military base outside it. It’ll be waking up with a start in the near future.

Anyway, Fusco has a kid with Ellen, three year old Pamela, and he came back to see her, found Ellen was with Devers, and being an easy-going sort of guy, ended up becoming chums with him. And much to Ellen’s dismay, they ended up hatching a scheme together–the payroll for the base is huge, and all cash.  Marty thinks there’s a job here, but he needs Parker to plan it.

Parker’s response is predictably wary–as it was when the Copper Canyon caper was pitched to him in The Score, but something about the way he expresses his incredulity doesn’t sound very Parker-like.

Parker broke in, saying, “Wait a while. This is the job you came down here to offer me? Go steal an Army payroll right off the post?”

“It isn’t Army, Parker, it’s Air Force. And besides, they–”

“What do you mean it isn’t Army? Have they got a fence around the post?”

“Base, they call it a base.”

“Have they got a fence around it? And gates? And armed sentries on the gates?”

“Parker, it can be done. There’s better than four hundred grand in there, Parker, twice a month, ours for the taking.”

“Yours for the taking,” Parker told him. “I don’t take money away from five thousand armed men.”

“It isn’t five thousand armed men, Parker. Christ, you know what Stan calls the Air Force? The saluting civil service, he says. You know what they carry on their practice alerts? Empty carbines. They don’t even get bullets, for Christ’s sake.”

“Somebody’s got bullets,” Parker told him. “Somewhere on that post, base, whatever they call it, somewhere there’s somebody doesn’t want us to take that four hundred grand. I’ll leave that somebody alone.”

A great bit of dialogue, but Parker doesn’t talk like that.  It’s too wordy, and too funny.  Parker doesn’t kvetch.  It sounds to me like John Dortmunder trying to get born.  It wasn’t long after this that Westlake started work on a Parker novel that kept veering into comedy–which for this character, simply doesn’t work.

Parker remembers his own wartime stint in the military, when everybody was on full alert, and it takes time for him to accept this isn’t the same thing at all.  But he wants to work again, even though he doesn’t have to yet, and so he tells Claire he’s going to check this thing out.  She doesn’t want to know the specifics–and she doesn’t want him to leave–she thinks he may not be coming back this time. They have a tense little discussion, and he leaves anyway.

How much time has passed since the last book?  Salsa’s name gets brought up later, and we’re told he died a couple of years ago–based on what we see at the start of The Rare Coin Score, Parker spent just a few restless weeks of womanizing between the end of the Cockaigne job Salsa died on, and his first meeting with Claire–who became his permanent traveling companion two months after the events of the previous book.

So flush with cash, and greatly enjoying his new steady girl, Parker has taken well over a year off–his longest break since we’ve known him–and yet he and Claire still have a very passionate sex life.  He doesn’t need to pull a job to get it up anymore. Claire changed that for him. But he still needs to work–nobody can change that–and something about this job intrigues him.  The challenge of it–how sweet it would be to take that money away from the U.S. military.  Claire had a point about him–he does like to fight society. It brings out the artist in him.

Devers meets them at the airport with his maroon Pontiac, and they drive upstate–Fusco has been raving about this kid, how smart and on-the-ball he is, how he’ll be a great recruit to The Profession, and Parker thinks he may be right about that–Devers is already a pretty accomplished thief.  He’s clearly been embezzling from the Air Force–nice car, fancy duds, a charge account at Lord & Taylor’s in New York City (ah yes, I remember it well).

Expensive tastes, no love for daily routine or bosses, a maverick streak, nerve to spare–yeah, Devers is the type.  But does he have everything it takes? Well, we know he’s got a cool car–probably a lot like this–

1965-Pontiac-GTO-Hardtop-Fully-Restored

Parker checks into a motel outside Monequois, in an even tinier town called Malone–and see, this is one reason I do these reviews chronologically. If we hadn’t just been looking at Anarchaos, would you pick up on Parker staying in a town with the same name as the protagonist of a book that came out the same year as this one?  I never did before (and this is my fourth time reading this book). Westlake liked to make these little meta-textual references that hardly anyone but him would ever notice.

Parker meets Ellen Fusco–and why did Westlake keep coming back to variations on that name, Elly, Ellie, etc?  She is not a happy person, and it’s hard to blame her.  She had a bad relationship with her strict parents, married Marty as an act of rebellion, only to see him wind up in prison, right after she got pregnant. She’s attractive, still young, and has hooked up with an even younger guy, who she thinks is husband material (not a good judge of character, is Ellen), and now the first husband is back, luring her new guy into a life of crime.  She was with Marty long enough to absorb the heisting ethos–don’t talk to the law. She won’t squeal on them.  Not intentionally.

But she’s not happy , and she wants everybody to know about it.  Particularly Parker.  Who of course she’s attracted to, even though she hates his guts.  And who does she talk to about all these conflicting emotions?  Her shrink, Dr. Godden.  Who is very interested in what she has to say about this impending robbery, and the four hundred thousand dollars it could possibly net.

As Parker, Marty & Stan scope out the base, come up with a plan, assemble a solid string, we alternate between chapters where they do all this and chapters with Ellen talking to Dr. Godden about it–he encourages her to participate more, involve herself, be present for all their planning sessions–it’ll be therapeutic for her.   She’ll realize her anxieties are unfounded.  Everything’s going to be just fine.  As long as she keeps telling him all about it.

“Perhaps on Wednesday,” he said, “you’ll feel like talking about the robbery again.  Perhaps you’ll understand your feelings better then.”

“I’ll talk about it now,” she said. “Now that I understand this, I want to talk about it, honestly.”

“There’s no time now,” he said, and his voice didn’t sound quite as sympathetic as usual. “We’ll see what happens on Wednesday.”

Now she did feel guilty.  She’d been keeping the plan from Dr. Godden for no reason, making him feel she didn’t trust him, causing a rift between them just when she needed him the most. “I’ll tell you the whole thing on Wednesday,” she promised.

“If you feel like it,” he said.

(Sidebar: Amazingly, in the 1960’s, Dr. Godden might  have been within his rights to not divulge this impending armed robbery to the police.  It wasn’t until the late 60’s/early 70’s that certain cases led to the passage of state laws creating exemptions to patient/doctor privilege–like a patient telling a doctor about a violent crime that had not yet been committed.  And since Ellen wasn’t actively participating in the crime, and the heisters would ideally prefer not to hurt anybody in the commission of said crime–it’s a bit of a grey area.   Psychiatrists committing crimes based on inside information from patients, not so much.)

This is the tenth Parker novel, and we know the score by now, which is to say we know somebody’s always trying to score off Parker’s score.  This time it’s Godden, who (once we’re inside his head) turns out to be a man in a pretty desperate situation, due mainly to personal weakness.  He keeps marrying women who are only interested in his money (judging by his physical description, there’s not much else to be interested in), and as they kept spending it all, he kept cutting ethical corners to make up the shortfall–writing prescriptions he shouldn’t have, facilitating illegal abortions that went wrong (Roe v. Wade is still about six or seven years off), and he got caught, which brought an end to his lucrative Manhattan practice.

He ended up in Monequois, still licensed, but not making nearly enough to support an ex-wife, a current wife, and a mistress.  And now he’s being blackmailed by someone who knows about his past indiscretions.  He wants to escape the whole sorry mess, but how?  Ellen Fusco presents him with the answer to his problems.  He just has to recruit a few accomplices, and they’ll heist the heist.  But he doesn’t know any professional thieves, and even if he did they’d demand their cut, and he wants the whole pile for himself.

So he recruits two of his patients.   The deeply disturbed Roger St. Cloud, a 22 year old rebel without a clue, who dreams about being inside gun barrels pointed at his controlling father’s head; and a big passive pliable lunkhead named Ralph Hochberg, who Godden convinces that he needs to do something assertive, like steal money from armed robbers.  Godden has betrayed every aspect of his professional identity, and his personal identity was never much to start with. For all the supposed amorality of Richard Stark, I find a very strong sense of alternate morality in him–in his world, people are punished, with extreme severity, for the crime of not knowing who they are.

Several chapters are devoted to Devers showing Parker the base, interpreting its culture–in many ways, it feels like a college campus–most of the people there are attending classes of one kind or another. There’s a movie theater, there are restaurants, even bus lines to take you around. Most of the men are out of uniform most of the time. We never see a plane, though they do have them there. Parker quickly realizes this isn’t the armed camp that he’d envisioned. These people are as soft as The Outfit–maybe softer. They’re not prepared to deal with somebody like him.

They’re more on their toes than they would normally be, because of a recent sting operation–an inspector got past the guards and planted several symbolic ‘bombs’ in the shape of bricks, just to demonstrate how poor their security was. But so many people have to go in and out of the base every day. No matter how carefully the guards are briefed, they can’t help but get bored and caught up in the daily routine. The bigger and busier the installation, the less secure it is. Well, we know that now, right?

Before they head for the base, Devers admits he’s got the jitters–Parker says most guys in this business do–but not him.

He wasn’t boasting, it was the truth. The situation they were going into tonight would only make him colder and colder, harder and harder, surer and surer. He knew everything was organized, he knew the way it was supposed to come off, the step-by-step working out of the prepared script, and he was like a cold-blooded stage manager on opening night; no jitters, just a cold hard determination that everything would happen the way it was supposed to happen. He knew that the others, the actors, were all atremble, but that wasn’t for him. Stage managers don’t tremble.

This seems more like a metaphor Grofield would resort to–Parker normally has no use for metaphors of any kind. Is this the way Parker thinks, or just the way Stark is interpreting his thoughts for us?

He seems a bit more human in this book. Waiting for the job to start, he’s surprised to find himself thinking about Claire, wanting to get back to her, take her to the casino in San Juan, where she invariably loses fifty bucks playing craps, then wants to go right back to their room to make love. He doesn’t live entirely in the here and now anymore. Part of him is always with her. And yet, as we’ve seen, when he’s with her, part of him is always looking for the next job. Like I said–more human than he used to be. But still a wolf down deep. A wolf with a mate.  Though described as a panther at one point in this book.  Stop screwing with my metaphor, Stark!

The plan involves going in during a period of peak traffic, right around 5:00pm, when the AP’s (Air Police) at the gate are under pressure to avoid a bottleneck. They disguise themselves (in gold tunics no less) as ‘Ernie Seven and the Four Score’–a dance band. They have a letter forged on stationary Devers obtained, saying they’ve been engaged to play at the Officer’s Club–and the Major in charge will be most displeased if they are late. Works like a charm.

They have to hang around until midnight to make their move–they get dinner, meet up with Devers, and catch a movie–twice. Parker pays no attention to the movie either time. He couldn’t tell you what it was about if he saw it a hundred times.  Just light, color, sound–nothing else. Some stage manager he’d make.

Midnight comes–there’s just a sliver of the new moon in the sky. They take out the guards at the payroll office–badly wounding one in the process, but raising no alarm. There’s six of them–Parker recruited Philly Webb, Jake Kengle, and Bill Stockton for the string. Solid pros, who do their job perfectly. It all goes off exactly the way Parker planned, except for this one guard who had to play cowboy and go for his gun, making Kengle shoot him–they hope he won’t die. That brings down more heat. They bandage his wounds. And leave him there. Some things you can’t control.

Before he got the call about this job, Kengle was trying to sell encyclopedias door to door.  Another element that shows up in the first Dortmunder book–many of the Stark heisters are very human, but that chapter about Kengle, who plays a pretty minor role in the story, almost seems superfluous in this context–bits of Westlake breaking through the Stark facade. Something about this story is making it harder for him to be Stark all the time.

They breeze back past the gate, back in their gold tunics, in a short bus with specially painted banners on it, and almost 400 large hidden under their musical instruments. The hideout is an abandoned hunting lodge, not far at all from the base–but Parker and Webb lay a false trail, making it seem like they crossed over into Canada. Devers heads back to Ellen’s house.  Fusco, Kengle, and Stockton will guard the cash. A near-perfect job. And then it all goes sour. Again.

Parker and Webb get back to the lodge, and find what we knew they would find–all three of their confederates are dead, and the money is gone. They head for the house, and find Devers in bed with Ellen–obviously they suspect him, but it’s increasingly clear he’s as shocked as they are. None of them, however, are nearly as shocked as Ellen–when she realizes what’s happened.   And her already-fragile mental equilibrium collapses on itself.

“Marty isn’t dead,” she said.

Parker said, “Devers, slap her face. I want her awake.”

But then Ellen shrieked, “Why would he do a thing like that? Face contorted with rage, she leaped off the bed and tried to run out of the room. Parker grabbed her and she twisted and squirmed, trying to get away, shouting “I’ve got to talk to him, I’ve got to find out! I’ve got to know why he did it, why he’d do something like this!”

Parker slapped her with his free hand, open palm across the face, and she sagged against him, her body abruptly boneless. Holding her up, Parker said “Who? Who did it?”

“I was supposed to be able to trust him,” she said, her eyes closed, her body slack with defeat.

Parker shook her. “Who?”

Devers said, “For Christ’s sake, Parker, don’t you get it? She’s talking about her analyst!”

No, of course Parker doesn’t get it. He’s never needed to confide in anyone–he’ll never be that human. We all understand perfectly well the need to confide, to share the thoughts and emotions we can’t openly express, the darker side of ourselves, the sins we’ve committed, the sins we wish we’d committed–with a family member, a friend, a soulmate, a priest, or if all else fails, a paid professional. All else had failed for Ellen Fusco.

If Parker truly knew what it was to be human, to have that weakness, he would have seen this coming–he knew she was going to see a shrink. They all did, but Marty was blinded by guilt, Stan by lust–Parker, whose most important function in any heist is always to see trouble lurking around each corner, was blinded only by the fact that he’ll never fully understand people. You tell somebody your deepest most dangerous secrets–and you pay him to listen? Lord, what fools these mortals be.

And this mortal was fool enough to think he could finish this review in under 6,000 words, but it doesn’t look promising. The stage manager in me thinks it’s time to take a break, and come back for act two next week. End scene–lower curtain–smoke ’em if you got ’em.

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Filed under Donald Westlake novels, Parker Novels