Tag Archives: The Mourner

Review: The Mourner


 It stood in a corner, near the bookcase, on a low pedestal nearly hidden from view.  White, small, alone, bent by grief, the mourner stood, his face turned away.  A young monk, soft-faced, his cowl back to reveal his clipped hair, his hands slender and long-fingered, the toes of his right foot peeking out from under his rough white robe.  His eyes stared at the floor, large, full of sorrow.  His left arm was bent, the hand up alongside his cheek, palm outward and shielding his face.  His right hand, the fingers straight, almost taut, cupped his left elbow, the forearm across his midsection.  The broad sleeve had slipped down his left forearm, showing a thin and delicate wrist.  His whole body was twisted to the left, and bent slightly forward, as though grief had instantaneously aged him.  It was as if he grieved for every mournful thing that had ever happened in the world, from one end of time to another.

“I see,” said Menlo softly, gazing at the mourner.  He reached out gently and picked the statue up, turning it in his hands carefully.   “Yes, I see.  I understand your Mr. Harrow’s craving.  Yes, I do understand.”

“Now the dough,” said Parker.   To him, the statue was merely sixteen inches of alabaster, for the delivery of which he had already been paid in full.

We might as well ask ourselves at this point–who the hell is Richard Stark?   Originally, just a name Westlake had submitted a few short stories under, none of which were terribly different from what he wrote under his own name.  Then a name Westlake chose to use for a one-shot novel about an amoral armed robber, that turned into 24 novels written over a span of about 45 years, because an editor at Pocket Books really enjoyed the first one, and wanted to read more about this guy.

Westlake could only do one novel a year under his own name for Random House, and he was good for a lot more books a year than that.   He needed an outlet for his burgeoning creative energies, and he needed to make more money for his burgeoning family (ex-wives and all).   If he wasn’t writing crime books as Richard Stark, he’d still be writing sex books as Alan Marsh.  So above all else, there’s a pragmatic side to it.

But right from the start, and more with each subsequent book, Stark wrote differently than Westlake.   He used fewer words, for one thing, but that wasn’t because he didn’t know all the same words Westlake did–laconic by choice, not necessity.   Less likely to go off on tangents–more focused, more intense, but also calmer, somehow.  More deliberative.  More objective.   More methodical.  Less judgmental.   He tells you the story, and lets you figure out how you feel about it.   He may have a point of view, but you’ll never be quite sure what it is.   As opposed to Westlake, who is perfectly okay with you having your own take on his story, but is still going to give you his own, because that’s part of the fun of being a writer, right?

Westlake, writing pretty much entirely in the first person at this point (at least in his novels), has his narrators go on at some length about their their experiences, their outlooks, their worldview.   They don’t just narrate, they philosophize.  We know who they are, because they tell us, in great detail, how they got where they are, why they are the people they came to be, and we see how their experiences change them, for better and for worse.  And we see things entirely from their perspective,  of course–we see every other character through their eyes.

But Stark, writing in the third person, with a protagonist who isn’t remotely interested in sharing with the reader, sees no reason to try and justify his actions, whose origins will always remain obscure (and downright unaccountable), who seems to have no opinions that don’t directly relate to the job at hand, no interests other than getting paid and (eventually) laid–you see the problem.  Stark has no choice but to jump over into the heads of other characters in the book, some of whom basically become protagonists in their own right, short-lived as they often are.

Parker is only interesting when he’s active, engaged, and he seems to require long stretches of complete inactivity and total disengagement.   How many pages can you write about Parker sitting in a dark room, with the TV on, staring blankly at the screen, not taking any of it in?   That’s good for one short enigmatic paragraph.  At best.

Ipso facto, there is not one Parker novel written entirely from Parker’s perspective.   And that’s for two reasons–the first being that Parker’s consciousness, his interior castle (to borrow a phrase from St. Teresa), is too sparsely decorated, too perfect in its simplicity–and the second is that we want to see Parker through the eyes of other people, to get a different perspective on him.  People whose interior castles are anything but simple.  People who do have worldviews to share with us.   People we can actually understand, if not necessarily approve of.  People who stand in contrast to Parker himself.  The books are an exercise in comparative psychology.   Among other things.

So anyway, this book directly follows up on the events of The Outfit.   Parker and Handy McKay are out to steal a small statue from a foreign diplomat for Bett Harrow’s industrialist father, who paid them $50,000 in advance to do it–Parker doesn’t like the set-up but he agrees to it because Bett has a murder weapon with his fingerprints on it to trade–technically it was self-defense, but Parker knows he’s never getting off on any technicalities.  He could just disappear and create a new identity, but that’s a pain to do, so he figures 25k is a decent enough haul.   He never bothers to tell them he’s got a partner to split with, because they don’t need to know that.

Mr. Harrow thinks Parker needs to know the full history and provenance of this statue, which is one of the lost Mourners of Dijon (yes, they really exist, that’s a picture of some of them up above, on tour at the Met), and he simply can’t understand why Parker isn’t even a little bit interested–doesn’t this man understand the concept of plot exposition?

Parker doesn’t give a rat’s ass about plot exposition.   Parker just needs to know where it is, what it looks like, and a blueprint of the house would be good.   Art has absolutely no meaning to Parker.  It does not exist for him.  The Lost Mourner of Dijon might as well be a  garden gnome from Walmart, as far as he’s concerned.  He’s not a philistine, because a philistine has bad taste.   Parker has no tastes of any kind when it comes to anything other than women–he’s not all that picky there in a pinch.   Art is only meaningful to him as a potential source of income.   But he’d so much rather steal cash.   Simpler.

And yet, because he spent a few nights in the rack with a rich leggy hollow-cheeked blonde with a taste for violence and manipulation, he’s forced to become an art thief.  And to listen to an impromptu art history lecture from a guy who makes airplanes for a living.  While the rich leggy hollow-cheeked blonde laughs quietly to herself and stares at the ceiling.

So here we see Richard Stark doing what he does–rattling Parker’s cage, testing his reactions, taking him out of his comfort zone.   Parker just wants to do like he did in The Man With the Getaway Face–over and over and over–let him hijack an armored car here, steal a payroll there, and he cares not who writes the nation’s laws.  Not like any of them are written for his benefit.   But much as he (and we) enjoy that routine, it’s too simple–Stark wants to mix things up, keep Parker hopping, find out how he deals with matters he’s not accustomed to–like international espionage.   But not the way Ian Fleming writes it.   Not the least tiny bit like that.

Parker and Handy have inadvertently stumbled onto a much more complicated situation than they had bargained on, as Parker learns after he rescues Handy from two Outfit guys who are working with a member of the secret police of Klastrava, a tiny central European nation under Soviet sway.   There is, you should know, no such place as Klastrava, in central Europe or anywhere else, but Westlake loved to make up his own countries–I may commission an atlas someday.   Or possibly a google map.

The policeman/spy is a short, chubby, and utterly charming fellow, whose name is Auguste Menlo (which is not, best as I can tell, a name one would find in central Europe–it’s actually an anglicized version of an old Irish name, and I’m guessing Westlake lifted it from Menlo Park, New Jersey).  He has conned a local branch of The Outfit into working with him.  He had previously conned his own government (and perhaps himself) into thinking he was incorruptible, so they sent him on a special mission to America.   See, the the diplomat with the statue (named Kapor) also has about $100,000 that he embezzled from the Klastravan government, which is hidden in the same place as the statue Mr. Harrow covets for his collection.   Menlo is to liquidate Kapor and return the money–in that order.

Menlo had heretofore lived a life of unblemished Marxian integrity, faithful to his plump pleasant wife, never taking a bribe, sniffing out the non-orthodox (then snuffing them out), acting the part of a not-so-grand Inquisitor, up until the moment he found out he could become a rich man in America, at which point he immediately decided to hell with Marx, he wanted some capital of his own.   He’s going to try playing some new Engels,  har-de-har-har.

There is a kind of man who is honest so long as the plunger is small.  This kind of man has chosen his life and finds it rewarding, so he will not risk it for anything less rewarding.  And while Menlo had long since lost all interest in his Anna, the occasional woman who became available seemed to him hardly much of an improvement, certainly not worth the risk of losing his comfortable home.  Nor were the financial temptations that cropped up along his official path worth the comfort and security he already enjoyed.  As time went by, his reputation grew, and so did the trust it inspired.   Who better to trust with one hundred thousand dollars, four thousand miles from home?

Who indeed?  Finally faced with real temptation, Menlo’s carefully constructed identity instantly crumbles away, revealing his true identity–a thief and a rascal, loyal only to himself.   But at this new avocation he is an amateur, though chillingly professional in other respects.    And since he can’t take the money for himself if he goes about his job in the expected manner, with his officially sanctioned confederates, he needs to enlist the help of true professionals in this new field of crime that he is entering–he tries the organized gangsters he’s heard so much about, who have some helpful connections, but are otherwise a bit of a disappointment.

Then he has a series of encounters with Parker and Handy on their parallel mission, who fall afoul of Menlo’s group, forcing them to eliminate both the Outfit men  and the Klastravan spymaster who was about to execute Menlo for his disloyalty.    There’s a lot of torturing going on in this section of the book, by both Parker and the opposition, the difference being that Parker doesn’t enjoy it (Handy neither, since he’s one of the people being tortured at one point).

They learn about the 100 g’s from Menlo, who learns about The Mourner from them–and unlike them, he actually gives a damn.   Something of an art buff, is our Mr. Menlo.   How very bourgeois of him.  Anyway,  they strike a deal, which neither side intends to honor–Parker and Handy will keep him alive long enough for him to tell them where the money is.   They expect him to try a cross sometime after they make their escape.  He decides to do it a bit earlier than that.

When they break into Kapor’s art room at the ambassadorial mansion, he is most disparaging of Kapor’s miscellaneous collection of statuary, sniffing that such lack of taste deserves no one hundred thousand dollars (and in this we learn that he is not, like Parker, amoral–no truly amoral man ever used the word ‘deserve’ in earnest).

Menlo is grateful in his own way to Parker and Handy for their help,  but has no intention of splitting ‘his’ money with them, and recognizes that they are too dangerous to keep alive a moment longer than necessary.   When they are distracted by the cash he’s produced from a hollow sculpture of Apollo, he produces a deadly toy he’d concealed from them–a Hi-Standard Derringer, firing only two shots.   He makes both of them count, leaving the startled heisters for dead, as he makes his exit, with the loot and the statue.  He only had two bullets, and he does have to make his exit quickly, but still–he should have made sure they were dead.   He’s so enraptured by his own prowess, the stunning early success of his new identity, that he fails to do so.


(I’m not a gun person, but damn that’s a neat little gizmo).

It should be pointed out that this is the second time Handy McKay’s affable nature, the one thing he does not share with Parker, proves a source of danger to them both–when Menlo wanted to grab his shaving kit, where the derringer was concealed in a false bottom, Parker had been disinclined to oblige, but Handy said what’s the harm, which turned out to not be a rhetorical question.   Just as in The Man With the Getaway Face, Handy had given Stubbs a flashlight  to light up his basement prison, which Stubbs then used to free himself.    In the world of Richard Stark, it is literally true that no good deed goes unpunished.

So now we enter into a whole section of the book where Menlo is the POV character, and we follow him on his hastily improvised trip from Washington DC to Miami, where the Harrows are waiting for the Mourner, using the getaway car his presumably deceased associates had so thoughtfully provided.   Bett Harrow has already invited him into her bed once (much to his astonishment), after Parker, in his “no sex, I’m working” mode had refused to service her needs (much to her astonishment), and he’s looking forward to repeating that experience.

It’s a very enjoyable section of the book, and it shows why Westlake had to become Richard Stark in order to write about Parker (and why when he couldn’t summon Stark’s voice, he had to stop writing the books for many years).  Stark is, you might say, multi-lingual–he can get into Parker’s head, interpret his strange mode of thought to us–but he can also understand a man like Menlo, sophisticated, urbane, driven by more conventional human hungers.

Writing as himself, Westlake can appreciate a man like Parker, be fascinated by him, but can’t really understand him.   Writing as Stark, he can temporarily shuck off his usual moral parameters (which are always there, even in his bloodiest books–especially in his bloodiest books), and just go with the flow, appreciating each character’s unique perspective, without necessarily sharing any of them.   Though you can’t help but think that Stark thinks Parker’s way is best.   And he wishes he could share fully in it, but somehow he can’t–Stark describes The Mourner to us, and we know–it’s not just sixteen inches of alabaster to him.   Stark is midway between Parker and the rest of us, making him the ideal chronicler for both Parker and the people Parker works with–and against.

There’s a recurring theme in Westlake’s work (writing as Stark or himself), which I’d best mention now–you have to watch out for amateurs.   They will catch you offguard, do what you don’t expect, and often win the day, or at least a skirmish, through sheer unconventionality.   But they have their limits–professionalism is the key to a long successful career, in any field of endeavor.    And the one thing a professional thief knows first and foremost is that too much improvisation is going  to backfire on you, sooner or later–another is that you need to know the territory you’re working in.   Menlo is entirely improvising, and he’s now deep into terra incognita, as he drives through the American heartland.

One thing after another goes wrong for him–he gets caught in a speed trap (something he’d never even heard of before), and has to kill a small town policeman to make his escape.  He realizes more and more that he’s out of his element, not merely in terms of being a stranger in a strange land, but also in that a lifetime in the Klastravan thought police has ill prepared him for this new life he’s entered upon, in which he is no longer part of a political machine, but a free agent, with no organization to fall back on.   His job was not merely a livelihood–it was who he was, and now he’s separated himself permanently from that, and from everything else he’s ever known.  He’s become a stranger to himself.   You don’t have to read every book Donald Westlake ever wrote to know how this journey is likely to end.

He reaches the Harrows, and makes a deal with them–The Mourner in exchange for assistance in creating a new identity for himself in America–he also needs to get a now unnecessary suicide capsule in his tooth removed.  What he doesn’t realize is that Bett, who once again willingly accepts him as her lover, has told her father to promise him anything–then turn him in to the Feds once the statue has been handed over.   He never does learn that American capitalists can be just as cold-blooded as his former colleagues, because when he returns with The Mourner, he finds Parker waiting for him in Harrow’s hotel room, gun in hand–and turns out that suicide capsule comes in handy after all.   The amateur’s lucky streak has run out.

Then the story rolls back, and we see what happened to Parker after Menlo’s over-hasty exist from the art room.  Handy is near death, but Parker was only grazed.  He braces Kapor, who is suitably frightened to learn of his narrow escape.  Parker offers to get back half of Kapor’s money from Menlo, in return for a doctor for him and Handy (and of course the other half of the money).

This is the second time in the book that Parker has gone out of his way to save his partner, and we’re going to see this kind of loyalty from him in the future–and never quite be sure what triggers it.   Parker agrees to pay for a hospital for Handy out of his half of the 100k, and just for one startled moment we’re reminded of the Good Samaritan–later, when Handy survives, Parker says he can pay the bill out of his half, which almost comes as a relief–but the enigma of Parker’s selective altruism remains, a mystery that will never be fully solved.

Handy asks what Kapor said when he found out The Mourner was gone–Parker realizes Kapor, who has now absconded with his diminished bankroll, with Menlo’s colleagues hard on his heels, never even noticed the statue was gone.   You wonder if somebody will someday steal the statue from Harrow, and whether he’ll meet the same fate as some of its past temporary owners.   And you wonder if Harrow, for all his desire to possess The Mourner, really understands it, and the impulse that created it, any better than Parker.   Certainly not as well as Richard Stark.

The main identity puzzle of The Mourner is Menlo, but we’ve been presented with a second conundrum–why is Bett Harrow so eager to offer herself to Parker, who she knows to be a thief and a murderer–and then Menlo, who she believes, briefly, to have murdered Parker.   Parker, to be sure, has been shown to be attractive to most women he meets, but Menlo is by no means similarly gifted.  And atypically, Parker himself gives us (and her) the answer–she’s attracted to strength.   Which she defines as winning–by fair means or foul, doesn’t matter.

She feels no attachment to the men she beds, she doesn’t care what they look like or how good in bed they are.   She’ll betray any of them when it suits her, but she needs them to be strong, dangerous in some way, to satisfy some secret yearning in herself, and in her privileged world, a good man is really hard to find.     Parker, now in post-heist mode, his wounds forgotten, tells her he’s got a few hours to kill, and then she’ll never see him again.   He walks into the bedroom, and she follows him, seemingly in a daze.   A classic noir blonde of the deadliest variety, who would have spelled doom for the common run of hardboiled hero, has finally met her match–and lost him.

I guess you could say there’s one more identity crisis to be resolved here, and that’s Handy’s–he’s been putting it off, caught up in the events of the past three books, but when Parker visits him in the hospital, he says he’s finally ready to retire to his diner in Presque Isle, Maine.   He says Parker should drop by sometime, and he’ll flip him an egg.  Parker will never drop by, and they both know it.

Handy only plays an active role in one more Parker novel, and his absence is sorely felt, but there are reasons why Westlake is retiring him so young.   He’s too much like Parker, differing mainly in his more easy-going nature.   The only mystery to Handy McKay is why he stayed in this racket so long.   He likes the work, he’s extremely skilled at it, but he seems temperamentally unsuited.  We’ve seen it in these small acts of compassion that have cost him and Parker dearly.

He’s never going to be a fully honest man either, and his compassion has its limits.   Menlo, contemplating his impending betrayal of both men, has a moment of exceptional insight when he inwardly refers to the two of them as “the most lupine of wolves.”   But for the present, Handy is going to try being at least a semi-honest citizen.   Just to see what it’s like.   Parker has no interest in being anything other than what he was born to be.   And that’s why he’s the strongest of all.

And in the next book, his strength is going to be tested like never before.   Art may mean nothing to Parker, but he is nonetheless an artist after his own fashion, and when we return, we’re going to watch him paint what might well be called his masterpiece.   With a most fascinating group of collaborators.


Filed under Parker Novels