Tag Archives: The Score

Review: Forever and a Death

Until recently, when he visualized that destruction, the image in Curtis’s mind of the toppling skyscrapers was immediately supplanted by the image of the ancient bastards in Beijing, the shock and the fear on those age-lined pig-faces when they heard the news: someone has killed your golden goose. The image of those faces had been enough for him, could bring him a smile every time he thought of it.

But just in the last few days, he’d found himself, not willingly, thinking about the people inside the buildings. There would be no warning, merely a low rumble in the earth and then the buildings would go over like chainsawed trees. No escape.

Those people in the buildings weren’t his enemies. But he wasn’t going to worry about them. They’d made their choice when they’d decided to stay, after the bastards from the mainland took over. They could have gone away, almost every one of them could have gone away. They could have gone to Macao, or Malaysia; many could have gone to Singapore (as Curtis had), or Canada, or a dozen other places in the world. But they chose to stay, so what happened was on their own heads.

Still, now that he was thinking about it, it seemed to him, for a number of reasons, he would be better to make it happen at night. He’d always visualized it in daylight, in bright sun, the gleaming glass buildings as they went over, but that wasn’t necessary. He certainly wouldn’t be there to see it.

At night, it would be easier to make the collections.

It’s been months since this book,  the last ‘new’ novel we’ll ever see from Westlake, was released.  Time for me to review it properly, as so few of his novels ever have been, which is why this blog exists.  To discuss, and in some detail, character, motivation, subtext, influences, style.  And plot.  If you read this whole review, you’re going to know the whole story. Shall we proceed?  Open your sealed dossiers, and let the debriefing begin. (Oh get your minds out of the gutter, it isn’t that whole a story).

There have, to be sure, been many reviews out there–you can see quotes from them on Amazon, including a blurb plucked from my own non-review review of some months back (mildly disorienting for me to read there, but I’ll take it).  Generally sketchy, sometimes insightful, mainly positive.  Not all from Westlake fans, either.

Reader reviews have been more mixed.  The general gist seems to be “Not bad, but I thought this was a Bond novel.  Where’s Bond?”  He ain’t here.  Not out there in reality, either.  That’s the point of the book, I argued back then (in my blurb), and I stick to that.

There are real villains, in the real world, with real evil plans, and the very real power to carry them out, and they do.  There is, however, no handsome heroic multi-talented individual who can more or less single-handedly foil these villains.  That kind of story is fun to read, and to watch, but it’s not real, even if you cut out the cloak and dagger stuff. (Edward Snowden?  Remind me who’s paying his rent now?  More of an unwitting henchman.  With Assange, you can cut out the unwitting part.)

Now of course Bond was never entirely on his own, he always had allies, collaborators, an entire government apparatus behind him, but the Fleming novels, and the films inspired by them, are still celebrations of rugged individualism, even as they depict an organization man, someone of whom it can honestly be said (to borrow a phrase from a much better written spy series) They’ve given you a number and taken away your name.

Spies are real, no question about that.  They’re all around us, much more than we realize.  And their work is typically less glamorous and exciting than that of a bike messenger for a Wall St. firm.   More dangerous, perhaps, but that depends on where they’re doing it, and when.  They get information.  They convey it to their paymasters.  There may be a certain limited measure of kiss-kissing and bang-banging, but not much, if they’re doing the job right.  Flash does not pay in their business.

But it’s what you’re selling with a Bond novel, a flight of pure fancy, which this book serves as a more earthbound commentary upon.  It’s written in a genre that might roughly be slotted as ‘suspense/thriller’–it’s no kind of spy novel.  There are no spies in it (well, there is one–a minor character, and an amateur–you know what tends to happen to them in Westlake novels).  No government espionage agency, real or imaginary, is involved, or even referred to.

This was a deliberate choice.  Westlake could not legally publish a novel with James Bond  as the protagonist, but let’s remember that the people who control the 007 franchise don’t own the idea of manly secret agents battling baddies while bedding babes, which Ian Fleming did not invent, and couldn’t have copyrighted if he had.  Matt Helm, Derek Flint, and Austin Powers all attest to this precise type of story being in the public domain.

This could easily have been a novel about some freelance tough guy getting sucked into a Bondian scenario–Westlake had done that before, though more often as Richard Stark–Parker had been a sort of spy in The Handle, if without much conviction (that book gets a bit of a shout-out here).  Alan Grofield had been dragooned into the role of secret agent  in The Blackbird.  Under his own name, Westlake had sent up the entire genre with The Spy in the Ointment.

These are all more economical, less ambitious books than the one we’re looking at, and much better ones, written in his two strongest authorial voices.  For us to properly evaluate this book, we have to accept he wanted to try a new voice, a new approach, incorporating elements of what he’d done before into new settings, with characters you’d never want to try and build a series of books around, who are much more mundane and ordinary than characters in this type of story tend to be.  Because they’re standing in for us.

Westlake wanted both his villain and those opposing him to be unaffiliated, and he also wanted them to be newbs, unaccustomed to their roles, though each has applicable skills, if they can figure out how to apply them.  There are cops involved, and robbers, but mainly ancillary.  The characters who carry the action are a commercial developer, an engineer, a smuggler, a construction foreman, and three environmental activists of radically different backgrounds.  This is not to say they are the only characters who matter, because the point of the book is that everybody matters.  Everybody makes a difference.  For better or worse.  Sometimes both.

This is a story about a man attempting to murder an entire city, for revenge and profit, a few dangerous pawns who assist him for reasons of their own, and a few decent brave flawed individuals, who come to realize by degrees what he’s attempting, and try to stop him.  It’s a detective novel, as much as anything else.  But written quite frequently from the criminal’s POV–a Westlake specialty.  So also a heist novel. As are some of the Bond stories, most notably Goldfinger, probably the one Westlake was most familiar with, since he tried his own take on a military base heist in The Green Eagle Score, which I’d take over all the Ian Fleming books ever written, with the pastiches thrown in.

To sum up how all this happened, for those arriving late, Westlake was tasked with writing a story treatment for the Bond film that was going to follow Goldeneye, assuming Goldeneye wasn’t a flop.  He asked Jeff Kleeman to send him videocopies of some of the Bond films, making it clear he hadn’t seen them all.  Unknown which if any of the Fleming books he’d read.

I don’t know if one of the films he viewed in preparation was A View To A Kill, which I very much doubt Westlake went to see when it came out, and had not been greeted with much enthusiasm at the time.  Christopher Walken’s diabolic Zorin, a giggling over-the-top Nazi science project of a man, has an idea quite similar to that of the baddie in Westlake’s original treatment, relating to Silicon Valley (an idea that could not possibly work in reality, for reasons Westlake would have immediately perceived, but what else is new in Bond-town?)

Since Zorin’s plan was self-evidently inspired by Goldfinger, maybe Westlake never saw the later film at all, and was just extrapolating along comparable lines?  Westlake liked to avoid obvious repetition when possible. (But then, isn’t obvious repetition part and parcel of this franchise?)

Greg Tulonen, Phil P., and Jeff Kleeman (in his engagingly informative afterword to this book), have all helped us better understand how this project came to pass, and why Westlake’s treatment ultimately went nowhere, became something else, written by somebody else, with just a few of Westlake’s ideas marginally present.

He then felt moved to write a very long novel (610 pages in the original manuscript) that took the core ideas from his treatment and made a new story out of them, which met with a muted response from people whose opinions he valued, so the book was put aside, while still in early draft form.

But we’ve covered all that already.  What we’re looking at is the book that has now been published, boiled down to a more manageable length by Charles Ardai.  And our mission, should we choose to accept it (I know, wrong franchise), is deciding whether we can view it as any kind of success on its own terms, or simply an oddity, a forgotten relic from the career of a storied storyteller.

Our mission is complicated by the fact that the book was never properly finished.  This posthumously edited version differs in many respects from what we’d be reading  if Westlake had gotten it published in his lifetime.  There would have been more drafts, editorial notes, sharpening of character, tightening of story, tweaking of language.  All Ardai could do was what Abby Westlake reportedly suggested her husband do back then, namely that he ‘cut a hundred pages of hemming and hawing.’  (That’s how Westlake himself put it, perhaps Abby was more diplomatic.)

It wouldn’t rank among his best books, no matter how long he worked on it, because this type of material was never his strongest suit, and it was a bit late in the day for such a radical reinvention.  I wouldn’t call it one of his worst books, because there is a sense of energy and purpose to it, for all the missteps and rough patches–much better than Who Stole Sassi Manoon?, or Gangway!, both of which had comparable Tinseltown origins.  Not sure I’d call it a Westlake, either.

As I said, when I wrote about it some months ago, it strikes me as being written more in the style of Timothy J. Culver, the portion of Westlake’s psyche that wrote very long ‘airport’ novels of intrigue and adventure, with humor on the down-low.  Only Ex Officio was ever published under Culver’s name, and Westlake wrote disparagingly of this alter ego, but Kahawa, to a lesser extent, is written in that mode, as is Humans.  None of these books were big sellers, though Kahawa was critically well-regarded, has a loyal following to this day, and is in most respects superior to Forever And A Death.

Westlake reportedly wanted this one published under a feminine nom de plume, something Knox Burger, his agent of the time, found disconcerting.  It’s not clear why he was so bothered, since Westlake’s very successful friend, Lawrence Block, has written on and off as Jill Emerson for over half a century now.  Maybe it was something else about the name that bothered Mr. Burger, who would be thinking about how this book would impact the Westlake ‘brand’.  (And of course no matter what name it was published under, it would be outed as his handiwork, sooner or later–plenty of hints for the sharp-eyed).

Westlake had, interestingly, published four detective novels under the name Samuel Holt–same name as the protagonist/narrator of that series–and Burger specifically cites the Holt novels in his response to Westlake, not at all in a complimentary fashion.  Was his suggested pseudonym here also the name of a character from this book?  Somebody out there must know, but I don’t.

I do know I better start the synopsis–this is a good-sized novel, divided into four parts, each primarily set in a different location, with many a twist and turn along the way, involving at least 13 POV characters (the precise number is debatable).  I don’t intend to let this turn into a three or four parter, as I have in the case with shorter books with more fine detail work.

My intent is to make Part 1 about Parts One and Two, and Part 2 will be devoted to Parts Three and Four.  For all the POV characters in this book, there is one who looms above all the others.  And he’s not the hero.   But in his mind, he’s the–

ONE:

He was consumed with so much anger, so much hatred, that he found it hard to be around other people for very long.  The snarl beneath the surface kept wanting to break through.

And of course, everybody knew about it, which only made things worse. Everybody knew they’d driven Richard Curtis out of Hong Kong, those mainland bastards, once they’d taken over. Everybody knew they’d cheated him, and robbed him, and driven him out of his home, his industry, his life. Everybody knew Richard Curtis’s great humiliation. But what nobody knew was that the game wasn’t over.

This story begins and ends with Richard Curtis–a name I feel confident in saying is derived from Westlake’s two hardest-boiled pseudonyms–Richard Stark and Curt Clark. Because Richard Stark wrote The Score, the premise of which hangs upon a man with a blood vendetta against the town that exiled him, and is using the professional heist men he’s working with, Parker included, to get his revenge.

Curt Clark wrote Anarchaos, a science fiction noir about a man possessed by rage against society, who sets out to learn if an entire planet of criminals murdered his brother, and pass sentence if it has.

Curtis’ ambitions lie somewhere between those two poles.  As does his morality, if he can be said to have any.  His identity crisis lies in the fact that in order to try and regain the person he used to be, he’s got to become what he never was before–a killer.  And we should remember, Westlake wrote this not long after he wrote The Ax.  But all these books I mention were much more focused.

This story is going to be more divided in its attentions, and its sympathies.  A strength and a weakness. A challenging story to write, all the more since it’s using a borrowed template that needs to be subtly altered to get Westlake’s points across–Curtis is a rationalized Bond villain, with a rationalized Bond villain scheme, rationalized murderous henchmen with inner lives of their own, and more believable motivations than any villain I can think of from the Fleming novels, or the many films based on them.

The people who come to oppose him are, in a sense, a collective 007, standing in for we the audience.  Also rationalized, and fallible as all hell, forced willy-nilly into the role of hero, finding it not nearly as much fun as the movies make it seem.  Fascinating concept.  Incredibly difficult to execute properly.

We see a helicopter coming in to land, on Curtis’s yacht, at sea, off the coast of a small abandoned atoll, a former Japanese military base, under the territorial authority of Australia.  Curtis is on that helicopter.  He’s come to see a dream made real.  Not necessarily a pleasant dream.

Working with a brilliant young engineer, Richard Manville, Curtis intends to use a soliton wave, created by carefully set explosives, to turn the entire island to mud in a matter of minutes.  Thus creating a blank slate upon which he can build a luxury casino resort, his very own Cockaigne, though the name is never mentioned–Westlake drawing a sly subtextual parallel between Curtis and his earlier attempt at a Bond-style villain, Baron Wolfgang Friedrich Kastelbern von Altstein, who likewise made a paradise of vice out of a desert isle.

Though Curtis is genuinely interested in this project, its potential for long-term profit, what he’s allowed no one to know is how desperately he requires a massive influx of capital, that no legitimate enterprise could ever yield him in time.  As matters stand, each of his partners in the venture thinks Curtis has secretly sold him/her a bigger share than the others, and Curtis’s own share is accordingly diminished.  Scratch a capitalist, find a con artist.

He was a billionaire developer in Hong Kong, until the mainland Chinese government took over there, and forced him out, helping themselves to most of his assets in the process.  This wholly predictable turn of events hurt him far worse than it should have–he was too stubborn and self-willed to cut his losses and relocate to Shanghai.  A tiger fighting a dragon, doomed from the start.  He only surrendered to the inevitable once he had no other choice, and too much damage had been done for his fortunes to recover.

Richard Curtis, like many if not most people at the pinnacle of the One Percent, can’t abide any form of authority over him–not even one of the world’s most powerful and autocratic nations.  Nor can he ever forgive a slight–let alone a defeat.  There is zero chance of his dying in poverty, very little of his ever paying for his chicanery with prison time.  That’s not the point.  His identity is based on being a billionaire developer, and a billionaire developer he must remain.  No matter what.

In the eyes of the world, he’s still all of that, more or less self-made (though he more or less stole his company from the children of those who created it, marrying one of them in the process).  He began as nothing more than an oil-rig worker out of Oklahoma, son of a fly-by-night contractor.  He is decidedly not an entitled strutting self-promoting media-driven fraud like Trump, though comparisons are there to be made, if you like–most notably in the way he’s over-leveraged himself, owes far more than he owns, and is no more than a few years away from ruin, if he can’t make the kind of score that no one would ever imagine him capable of pulling off.  (Yes, there are parallels, I just said so.)

He’s no stranger to cutting legal and ethical corners, never had any qualms over doing so–but now he’s decided to commit mass murder, apolitical terrorism on a scale that would dwarf 9/11 (which hadn’t happened at the time this was written, and please note, a wealthy engineer was behind that as well).  All this in order to cover outright theft, of the gold reserves lying in underground vaults there.

But even more important to him, this would deal a vicious blow to the ‘ancient bastards’ in Beijing (another subtextual cross-reference, this time to Humans)–and by extension, the entire world economy.  Perhaps millions of lives will end by his hand, billions more will be impacted.  What Richard Curtis can’t control, he destroys.

Does he care?  Only to the extent that it changes the way he looks at himself.  He tells himself that he’ll do it at night, to minimize the number of people present in the business district of Hong Kong, built mainly on landfill, that will crumble the same way as the fragile atoll to the soliton’s kiss.  But this is not compassion, or guilt, and he has no capacity for shame.  He’s just not yet ready to fully accept what he’s in the process of becoming.

In the meantime, others are going through transitions of their own.  As Curtis and Manville prepare their experiment from Curtis’s palatial yacht (Manville has no inkling of what further use Curtis has for his idea), a ship from the environmental group Planetwatch approaches.  An expedition led by Jerry Diedrich, who has a long-held mysterious vendetta against Curtis, and has plagued him in the past.  He has learned about the soliton through private channels, and is claiming it will damage the Great Barrier Reef.  His public statements don’t match his personal motives. Curtis is his own personal Great White Whale, and the reef is just an excuse to throw harpoons at the blowhard’s blowhole.

Aboard the ship with him are various other activists, including Diedrich’s cool enigmatic German-born lover, Luther Rickendorf, made of sterner stuff than the temperamental Diedrich, who won’t come into his own until later in the book.

More important to this part of the story is twenty-three year old Kim Baldur, child of the middle class, American as they come, both a good and a bad thing (and when is it ever not?)  The last of Westlake’s perky blonde ingenues, and perhaps the best of them.  Brave, impulsive, naive, idealistic, decent, far too trusting for her own good.  And like most kids, convinced of her own immortality.

(I finally head-cast her as Michelle Williams.  A bit too seasoned to play Kim now–at least the girl she is when we meet her.  The woman Kim is by the end, Williams could still play admirably.)

Manville didn’t put in a fail safe device, so once the countdown has started, it can’t be stopped.  Diedrich refuses to believe this.  Kim, a trained diver with a Norse surname, takes it upon herself to be the sacrificial offering, believing as her mythic namesake did, that nothing in nature could ever harm her.

Without asking anyone’s leave, she launches herself into the ocean, swims for the island, believing this will force them to stop the explosions she has been told will irreparably damage one of the world’s natural wonders. But even the most ardent beliefs can’t change the facts, and Curtis probably wouldn’t give the order if he could.  By the time Kim and everyone else realizes what’s happening–

At first, the sea seemed to shrink, to turn a darker gray, as though it had suddenly grown cold, with goosebumps.  There was a silence then, a pregnant silence, like the cottony absence of sound just before a thunderstorm.  The island seemed to rise slightly from the sea, the concrete collar of its retaining wall standing out crisp and clear, every flaw and hollow in the length of it as vivid as if done in an etching.

Then a ripple appeared, faint at first, and rolled outward from the island, all around, just beneath the surface, like a representation of radio waves.  With the ripple came a muttering, a grumbling, as though boulders sheathed in wool were being rolled together in some deep cave.  And the ripple came outward, outward, not slacking, not losing power, with more ripples emerging behind it.

Planetwatch III, in too close, nearly capsizes in the backswell, but her captain keeps her afloat.  Nobody witnessing any of this believes there’s the slightest chance Kim survived. Manville is deeply troubled, feeling he was responsible for not foreseeing such an eventuality.  Diedrich, a good man for all his bombast, is likewise asking himself if he is responsible for this child’s death.

Curtis, to whom other people are assets or liabilities, sees a strategic opening.  If he can hang the death of this suicidal fool on Diedrich, he can tie the gadfly up in the Australian courts during the coming critical weeks–otherwise Diedrich might well appear in Hong Kong, since he clearly has a well-placed mole in Curtis’s company.  Curtis can’t believe his good fortune.

Not so lucky as he thought.  His men, doing the obligatory search for what they assume will be a corpse, find Kim floating unconscious off the coast of the reformed island.  There’s a faint pulse in her throat.  She’s brought on board, examined by the yacht’s skipper, Captain Zhang, who has some basic medical training.  He happily tells a disappointed Curtis that her injuries are not fatal.

The startled captain is then informed by his employer that he is mistaken–Kim Baldur will never wake again.  If necessary, Zhang must make sure of that. Believing without question that his none-too-subtle wishes will be carried out, since Zhang is a family man, and depends on Curtis for his present comfortable livelihood, Curtis proceeds to inform his business partners on the yacht, as well as Manville, that the girl died without ever regaining consciousness.

This is a mistake he will come to regret, leading to a cascade of subsidiary mistakes that will force him to go further and further out of his comfort zone, until his criminal enterprise is no longer a dry abstraction to him.  Diedrich was far less of a threat than the enemies Curtis is going to make by trying to neutralize all potential opposition–he has no suspicion that Curtis is an aspiring city-killer, nor was he likely to have found out on his own.  But his constant harassment got under Curtis’s skin.

Westlake had long made clear his contempt for people who make murder the answer to everything.  It is as much a logical as a moral disdain. Killing creates more complications than it resolves.  It’s the most unpredictable and dangerous tool in the kit.  To be used only when no other option exists (or where no law worth taking seriously exists).  If it had to be done, Curtis should have done it  himself.  But that’s a step he’s not prepared to take yet.  And he’s spent years ordering other people to do his dirty work for him.  Old habits.

Curtis has a sort of mad ingenuity, when he’s shouldering aside obstacles in his path, but a one-track mind is ill-suited to over-complex plans.  It was, after all, an engineer named Kelly Johnson who came up with the KISS principle.  (And not Gene Simmons, oddly enough.) You can find many over-focused megalomaniacs in Bond novels and films, making the same mistakes, but what you rarely find there is the carefully crafted inner monologues that bring us to better understand this monster, invite us into his confidence.

And we have to be brought into his confidence.  Because Curtis is never, at any time, going to confide the full details of his plans for Hong Kong to anyone, even his closest associates, who think they’re just going to steal a lot of gold, kill a relatively small number of people, and destroy a few city blocks to hide the evidence of their crime.  He knows they lack the imagination to encompass something on the scale of what he intends to do.  He uses everyone, trusts absolutely no one.

This is a huge break with both the Bond novels and films, and really with most popular fiction involving megalomaniacs and master plans and henchmen.  It was a leitmotif in the Bond novels all the way back to Moonraker, with innumerable antecedents, and the movies (lacking as they do a narrator who can put us in the villain’s head) magnified it to the point where anyone writing a Bond flick now has to struggle with a way to justify it.

(I’m curious as to how Westlake would have handled that hoary shibboleth, had his movie been made.  It should be said, Bond does at times figure out what the plan is without the aid of egocentric villains, but that often requires him to know far more than he ought to, another problem, that Fleming sort of danced his way around.)

It’s such a well-established trope for the villain to blab his evil plan to the hero that endless parodies have mocked this self-destructive compulsion. that is pretty much entirely an invention of desperate storytellers seeking plot exposition (pretty sure Hitler never phoned Churchill to brag about his V2 rockets).  Curtis makes a lot of mistakes, but never that one.  Well–hardly ever.  Westlake makes a sly curtsey to this tradition in Part One.

Captain Zhang is tormented with guilt and indecision, questioning whether he is the good man he always thought of himself as being–but doesn’t a good man protect his family from privation?  He delays as much as he can, hoping Curtis will change his mind, and the delay proves fatal to Curtis’s fatal plans for Kim.

Before Zhang does something that can’t be undone, Manville goes to Curtis and tells him he went to apologize to Kim’s corpse for not putting in the fail-safe (he can be almost annoyingly conscientious at times), and found a warm sleeping body instead. He knows Kim isn’t dead, but he heard Curtis tell an entire dinner party she was.

He’s figured out why Curtis would want her dead, and he figures all he has to do is tell Curtis he knows and the game will be up.  Curtis will find some other way around his difficulties.  Which is precisely what Curtis should do.  But Curtis hates to abandon any plan of action once he’s settled on it.

So instead he shares–just a little.  A little too much.  He tells Manville he’s really broke.  He tells him about what happened in Hong Kong.  He tells him about Jerry Diedrich’s vendetta.

“But what does that have to do with that girl, down in cabin seven?”

Curtis thought about his answer, then said, “All right.  The fact is, I have a way out of this mess.  I am going to be rich again, a lot richer than I ever was before.  But I have to be extremely careful, George.  What I’m going to do is dangerous, and it’s illegal, and I have to admit it’s going to be destructive.”

“With the soliton,” Manville said.

“I was going to do it without you,” Curtis told him, “and I still can.  I’m not asking you to be at risk, not for a second.  But you could share in the profit.”

He offers Manville ten million dollars.  In gold, if he wants.  All Manville has to do is stay quiet.  Maybe help out with additional calculations, if needed, though Curtis believes he can do that himself.  If he can get Manville to assent to Kim’s death, and by extension to the much larger thing Curtis plans to do with Manville’s idea, he’d be too implicated to speak up later.  Would he tell Manville everything if Manville came in with him?  We never find out.

It’s motivated quite differently from most Bond stories (though maybe just a bit like the film version of Goldfinger, wanting to bask in Bond’s admiration of his ingenuity).  He and Manville have worked together so well, understood each other so perfectly when it came to the project they just completed, that he felt like Manville was, in a sense, his other self, a secret sharer.  But this secret was never meant to be shared, not even in a vague hypothetical form.

Curtis can coldly plot the death of millions, order an underling to snuff out a young girl’s life, but hesitates to do the job himself–Manville is the obverse.  He can kill if he has to, but he’ll be the one doing it, with whatever tools come to hand.  He doesn’t yet know this about himself.  We don’t know our limits until they are tested.  Curtis has found Manville’s  He turns Curtis’s offer down flat.  Knowing as he does that now Curtis will try to have him killed as well.

A mistake had been made. Curtis understood that, now; he’d made a second mistake, while trying to adjust for the first. And both mistakes came down to the same error of judgment. He had gauged George Manville too poorly, dismissing him as just an engineer, which was certainly true, but without stopping to think what that meant.

Yes, Manville was just an engineer, and what that meant was, he had too much integrity and too little imagination. Dangle ten million in front of him—in gold, George, in gold!—and he hasn’t the wit to be seduced by it. First he has to take responsibility for the accident to the diver, a responsibility that was never for a second his, but which he assumed for himself simply because he was the project’s engineer. That unbidden, unasked-for scrupulousness leads him to learn the truth about the diver, which makes him a threat to Richard Curtis, to which Curtis responds by making mistake number two. Not taking time to judge his man, he tries to enlist Manville on his side, and tells him too much.

Before this, Curtis had once or twice wondered, if there were unexpected complications down the line, whether or not he’d be able to recruit Manville, and had guessed that a combination of cupidity and the engineering challenge would turn the trick, but now he knew he’d been wrong. Manville was too blunt-minded to be affected by cupidity, and his engineer’s honor would keep him from being caught up by the engineer’s challenge. If he could balk at finishing off one half-dead idiotic girl, how would he react to what was going to happen to all those people in the buildings?

(Parts of this read very much like a film treatment, don’t they?  The second paragraph in particular.  And we know why, but Westlake usually hid that kind of thing better.  He always worried about explaining his characters’ motivations for doing something necessary to advance the plot that didn’t quite make sense in pragmatic terms–as so much human behavior does not, but fictional humans get held to a higher standard, somehow.  He thought he’d explained Parker’s motivations too poorly in The Jugger, and sometimes he went to the other extreme, over-explained, to compensate.  The simple truth is, people with deadly secrets yearn to share them.  Not everything we do makes sense. Understatement of the century?)

Curtis pretends to relent.  Manville pretends to believe him.  Curtis flies off in his helicopter.   Captain Zhang takes a lot more time getting the yacht back to Brisbane than he ought to need.  Obviously there’s a plan to get rid of both of Manville and Kim.  Manville starts making plans of his own.

In the meantime, Kim wakes up, finds Manville standing guard over her, and is tended to by an increasingly guilt-ridden and confused Captain Zhang.   Manville tells her the situation they’re in.  But she’s still processing what got her in this situation.  Her Quixotic act, what she experienced when the soliton hit, and the price she has paid.  The price was knowledge.  Immortal no longer.

And once more she remembered her own final thought: Stupid me, now I’ve killed myself. But now she remembered more; she remembered what was inside that thought. Inside the panic and the desperate useless lunge toward the surface, and much more real, had been acceptance.

Resignation, and calm acceptance. She had known, for that second or two seconds, that she was going to die, and she’d accepted the fact, without challenge. She hadn’t even been unhappy.

How easy it is to die, she thought, and realized she’d always assumed it was hard to die, that life pulsed on as determinedly as it could until the end. It was a grim knowledge, that life didn’t mind its own finish, and she felt she had been given that knowledge too soon. I shouldn’t know that yet, she thought, and began to cry. She struggled to keep her breathing regular, to avoid the pain, and tears dribbled from her eyes, and then she opened her mouth and sighed and gave up the struggle and faded from consciousness.

(That didn’t read like a film treatment at all, did it?  More like a memory–or a premonition.  Westlake put a lot of himself into Kim, as well as perhaps some women he’d admired, and she is, in fact, one of his more successful attempts at a female protagonist.  She’ll need to be.)

She’s young and fit, and recovers quickly, but is still too shaky to put on a small boat and escape.  Manville has learned from Zhang that people are coming to kill them.  That’s why it’s taking so long to get to Brisbane.  He hides Kim, but they find her quick enough.  He looks for some weapon to fight them with.  All he can find is a large heavy pepper mill.   He clubs one of the searchers with it, and takes his gun.

He used to do target shooting, for fun.  He’s never shot at a living thing.  He’s never used this kind of gun before.  He has to learn fast.

He stood just out of sight of the people on deck, and studied the thing, a revolver with a bit of bullet showing at the back of each chamber. This small lever here on the side, handy to the right thumb; wouldn’t that be the safety?

The lever moved up and down, and when he first tried the thing it was in the down position. Would the man have done his searching with the safety on or off? There was nothing written on the pistol, no icons, no hint.

I’m an engineer, Manville thought, if I were the one who’d designed this, which way would turn the safety off, which way would turn it on? I would want the more speed when turning it off, would have less reason for speed when switching it on. The quickest simplest motion here is for the thumb to push this lever down, so if I were the engineer on this project I’d design it so the safety was off when the lever was down. The lever’s down.

If I’m wrong, I’ll know it when and if I have to pull the trigger. With luck, I’ll still have time to put my thumb under the lever and push it up. Without luck, I’m dead anyway, because this is nothing I know anything about.

He’s right.  And Curtis’s thugs, led by a cynical American smuggler named Morgan Pallifer, who Curtis has had past dealings with when he needed something illegal done, are wrong when they assume he’s bluffing.  Well, if they weren’t, that would be the end of the story, wouldn’t it?

So Manville and Kim tie up the survivors, and escape in their boat to nearby Brisbane–Kim has recovered enough by now, and they don’t have any choice.  Pallifer tells Manville he’d like to meet him again sometime.  Manville, a killer twice over now, much less disturbed by that fact than he would ever have believed possible, responds “I wouldn’t.”  End Part One.  And I’m well over 6,000 words.  Damn.

Okay.  One has to adapt to unforeseen exigencies.  That’s one of the lessons of this book.  I can’t possibly finish all three parts in the next installment.  So this will be a four-parter.  I’ll try to make the next one brief (it’s my least favorite part of the book).  One complication is that I don’t have four cover images for this book.  I have two–I’ll save the second for part four–it will be worth the wait.  As to the rest, I’ll improvise.

So next time Australia.  Then Singapore.  Then Hong Kong.  If there still is a Hong Kong when this book is finished.  And if there still is a world to read this review by the time I’ve finished it.  Did you hear that Kim Jong Un claims to have a hydrogen bomb he can fit into an ICBM?  Trump has thousands of the blasted things (poor choice of adjectives, that).

Like I said.  No shortage of real Bond villains in this world.  But if you’re waiting for Bond to show up and save you, well kids, you are just shit out of luck.

(Part of Friday’s Forgotten Books.  And I suppose this qualifies, though since almost nobody knew it existed before now…..)

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Filed under Donald Westlake film adaptations, Donald Westlake novels, Donald Westlake screenplays, Ex Officio, Timothy J. Culver

Review: Butcher’s Moon, Part 2

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They put him in the back seat of the Impala and drove away from the motel, Parker at the wheel and Grofield occasionally glancing back at Abadandi.  After several blocks, Grofield said, in a troubled and unhappy way “Goddamnit.”

“What’s the matter?”

“Now he’s bleeding from the ear.”

“Put some paper on it.”

Grofield opened the glove compartment.  “Nothing there.”

“Turn his head then.  We’ll unload him in a couple minutes.”

Grofield adjusted Abadandi’s head.  Parker drove away from the city, looking for a turnoff that might lead to privacy.  They were going to be late to Lozini’s, but there wasn’t any help for it.  Sunday morning traffic was light and mostly slow-moving; family groups.

“I feel sorry for the bastard,” Grofield said.

Parker glanced at him and looked back at the road.  “If I’d slept late this morning,” he said, “he could be feeling sorry for you by now.”

“An hour ago I was getting laid back there,” Grofield said.  “Jesus, his skin looks bad.”

Parker kept driving.

There’s no such thing as a Butcher’s Moon.  It’s something Westlake made up himself, responding to the old tradition of naming the full moons for each specific time of year–it’s something the first Americans started here, and the European settlers emulated and added to, but the idea seems to have occurred independently in many cultures.   Many variations exist.  There’s a Harvest Moon, a Hunter’s Moon–and a Wolf Moon (that’s in the dead of winter).  But none of these are a Butcher’s Moon.  Because a Butcher’s Moon is no moon at all.  Some things are best done in darkness.

I might as well mention here that somebody optioned this novel for a film version in 1996.  Variety reported at the time that Lumiere Films, which produced Leaving Las Vegas, had shelled out for the rights, attached Steve Shagan, the screenwriter for Primal Fear to write the screenplay, and that same film’s producer, Gary Lucchesi, to produce it (the film had not come out yet).  Lumiere CEO Randolph Pitts (it’s wrong to make fun of people’s names) said Butcher’s Moon was ‘one of Westlake’s grittiest efforts.’

“Lila Cazes, who’s head of production, and myself are developing a number of things with Gary and he suggested this book, which Westlake did under the pseudonym he used to write his hardest-hitting crime books,” said Pitts.  “Then, Gary suggested we meet with Steve Shagan after they’d done Primal Fear.”

We are further informed that Westlake (who is not quoted in Variety, because hey, he’s just the novelist), was repped by Gary Salt of Paul Kohner Agency.  And nothing more was ever heard of this film, nor shall be in all the eons to come.

Could be any number of reasons for that, but I’d certainly suspect one of them was that it’s one of the worst possible choices for a film adaptation (the worst possible choice probably being Flashfire).  It’s the least self-contained of the Parker novels, the one where the reader depends most on his or her memories of the books before it.  Now I would not say you couldn’t enjoy reading it if you’d never read a Parker novel before–but I can’t imagine how anyone doing so wouldn’t feel like dropping everything to find all those earlier books, and fill in all the gaps in his or her knowledge of that fictional world and its hard-boiled denizens.  That may be one of the reasons Westlake wrote it that way, but I don’t think it’s the only one.

I wonder if Shagan ever completed any drafts of a screenplay?  A treatment, at least?  I’d be interested to see what he did with it–how he tried to somehow collapse the plot into a film-able unit without having any previous films to refer back to.  He was a novelist himself (he wrote Save The Tiger, and then adapted it into the Jack Lemmon movie that I have yet to see).  He wrote the screenplays for a number of well known films, such as Voyage of the Damned, and he did some mafia stuff, and no, I don’t think it would have worked.  And if they’d stuck to the original ending, I bet film buffs would have accused them of ripping off The Outfit.  Which might not have been totally out of line.  But let’s get back to the synopsis.

We pick up with Mike Abadandi, one of Lozini’s trigger men in the mobbed up city of Tyler–we met him in Slayground, and the late Mr. Caliato, when he saw Abadandi was going to be helping him go after Parker at Fun Island, evaluated him with one word–“Good.”  He’s a very capable individual, probably the best hitter Lozini’s outfit has at the moment.  And he’s been sent to whack Parker and Grofield at their motel.

Why send one guy after two?  Because whoever wants this done wants it done quietly and professionally, with as little fuss and mess as possible.  And because Lozini doesn’t know anything about it.   This is not a properly sanctioned hit.   Meaning that the more guys they use, the more chance there is Lozini will find out before they want him to.

He uses a set of skeleton keys, and lets himself into the motel room, after he sees Grofield go in there, back from his highly athletic extramarital rendezvous with Dori the librarian.  We can sense his professionalism–he’s somebody Parker would be happy to work with, if he wasn’t an organization man.  Grofield is in the shower, singing (tunelessly, we’re told, so I guess he doesn’t do musicals).   Abadandi figures he’ll get Grofield, then look for Parker.  Bird in the hand.

But the other bird is in the closet–Parker saw Abadandi lurking around from his room, and set a trap for him.  Abadandi realizes Parker is coming at him, and is looking at his eyes, not the gun in his hand (which is pointed the wrong way), and he has just enough time to realize he’s up against somebody as good as him.  Maybe better, Mike.

What follows is a short violent struggle, and one of the few instances in twenty-four books that we see Parker have a prolonged physical altercation with a worthy opponent–he’s not the type to engage in pointless fisticuffs.   Abadandi doesn’t panic, he gives a good account of himself, but Parker is always a move ahead. Abadandi, who is wearing contacts, gets a hard kick to the head, then as he falls, Parker chops him in the neck with a huge veiny hand, and that’s the last we hear from Abadandi.

Parker hadn’t intended to injure the guy that badly–wanted to get some info out of him first (otherwise he’d have just shot him).  But one of the contacts has gone into his brain or something (I don’t know if this is a real thing, and I don’t want to know).  He’s not talking to anybody, probably ever.  But a look through his pockets clearly shows his affiliations, and Parker and Grofield already have a meet scheduled with Lozini at his house.

Parker and Grofield (who is using the name Green, in a little nod to his alternate universe doppelganger in the Dortmunder novels) show up there, and give Lozini the bad news.  And it’s really bad.  The only way Abadandi could have found their motel is if they were followed from the last meeting they had with him and his closest associates, at the office.  Only his most highly placed people knew about that meeting.  At least one of them made sure there was somebody waiting outside the office building.  Parker can make a very cogent persuasive argument when he wants to–and his argument now is that Lozini can only trust two people in the entire city.

“You’ve got a palace takeover on your hands,” Parker told him.  “That means a group, maybe four or five, maybe a dozen  A group of people inside your organization that want you out and somebody else in.  Somebody who’s already up close to the top, that they want to take your place.”

Lozini took his sunglasses off and massaged his closed eyes with thumb and forefinger.  His eyes still closed, he said “For the first time in my life I know what getting old is.  It’s wanting to be able to call for a time-out.”  He put the sunglasses back on and studied them both.  Their faces were closed to him, and always would be.  “You’re right,” he said.  “You’re the only ones I can trust, because I know exactly where you stand and what you want.”

They discuss the possible suspects, eliminating them one by one–it comes down to Ernie Dulare, who controls offtrack gambling, and Louis ‘Dutch’ Buenadella, who runs the local porno theaters.  Lozini is surprised how much they already know, courtesy of Grofield’s research.  But they all missed a very big important detail, that comes out when Parker asks if Farrell, the mob’s candidate for mayor, would be in on it.   Lozini is bewildered–his candidate is Alfred Wain.  Farrell is the reform candidate they’re trying to beat.  And now Parker begins to see he’s badly misjudged the situation in Tyler.

Coming into town, Parker saw that Farrell had a lot more money behind him, more signs, bigger banners, and figured that meant he was the syndicate’s man–and that he is, but the new syndicate, not the old one.  They were, in fact, using some of Parker and Grofield’s money to finance him, as well as Lozini’s.  That’s part of the take-over.  With their man in place at city hall, they can push Lozini out, and there won’t even be a fight.   Lozini never even saw it coming–until Parker pointed it out to him.  But Parker is angry at himself for not seeing it sooner.  False premises.  Hasty assumptions.  They’ll get you every time.  You have to know the territory.

Is it a bit much, making Parker smarter about politics than Lozini, who has been controlling this city for decades, or even Grofield, who spent hours researching Tyler’s political scene, and has shown some knowledge of politics in past?  Should a wolf in human form really know so much about the way our power structures work?   Technically, wolves are all about politics–who has the power in the pack at a given moment–it’s a lot more complicated than people think.  It’s not just Alphas and Omegas.  Nobody knows better than a wolf how transitory power can be, how quickly it can change allegiance.

Watch two dogs smelling each other, sizing each other up, sensing subtle changes that we’re entirely oblivious to.  They know far more about us than we about them–always watching us, even when they seem not to be.  We are, after all, their source of sustenance.  But see, dogs give a damn about us.  Parker doesn’t.

Basically, Parker knows what he needs to know about us to survive in our world. He’s always evaluating the situation, the battlefields he makes his living upon, which happen to be our communities, because that’s where the money is.  His mind functions more efficiently without all the distractions that plague the rest of us–but he can still make mistakes.  He’s been too focused on what he wants (the money), and hadn’t given enough thought to what others might be wanting.   And now he’s off-balance, wrong-footed.  He’s got a new enemy, whose name he doesn’t even know.  He’s got to fix that, and quickly.

Next chapter is from the perspective of George Farrell, local furniture magnate, pillar of the community, who has become bored with the family business, and consequently developed a taste for politics (tell me if you’ve heard this one before).  To further this end, he’s made a deal with known criminals–they’ll get him into power, and he’ll do their bidding, but he figures once he has the power, he can handle them just fine. What he can’t handle is two guys pretending to be his new security detail, who turn out to be Parker and Grofield.  His self-assurance cracks quickly under the weight of Parker’s fists.   He blurts out the name of his patron–Louis Buenadella.

And now we’re with Harold Calesian, detective first grade on Tyler’s police force, and a trusted member of Lozini’s inner circle–he’s in with Buenadella, of course.  Having picked a side, he intends to do all he can to make sure everything works out as planned, and to that end, he’s the one who murdered Officer O’Hara, who knew too much about what happened that night at the amusement park, two years ago.  He’s just back from murdering Paul Dunstan, the other cop there that night, who tried (too late) to get clean, get away, get free.  There was about one chance in a million that Dunstan would ever have been a problem for Calesian.  One chance too many.   Some people really do make murder the answer to everything.

He gets to his apartment, and Lozini is there waiting for him.  Lozini knows whoever is behind the coup wouldn’t have made a move without getting their top cop on his side.  He wants Calesian to tell him who it is.  If Calesian won’t tell him, Lozini will start shooting him in various non-fatal areas of his anatomy.  Lozini is done fooling around.

Lozini’s arc in this book is interesting–he’s become aware, very suddenly, of how much he’s allowed himself to slip–too many years of playing the part of respectable citizen–over time, you become the person you pretend to be.  The old gangster has lost his edge.  This is the first time in decades he’s even held a gun in his hand.  But he’s still dangerous.

Lozini doesn’t like to be pushed, but he doesn’t really want a fight either.  This is his identity crisis.  He’s trapped between two versions of himself–the ruthless man he used to be, and the easy-going amateur chef who pulls the strings from a safe distance, and has long avoided any direct use of violence, because it didn’t make sense for a man in his position to take that kind of risk.  That man he used to be is still down there inside of him–as was the case with Bronson, when Parker came for him, years before–but the reflexes have dulled.  Memory isn’t enough.

He tells Calesian he’s just about ready to retire, leave town, play shuffleboard.   But he can’t accept being forced out by an underling.  He wants to make some kind of deal, come to an arrangement.  This is his mistake.  This is why he’s about to die.  Because you can’t have it both ways.   You can’t have absolute power, and then just bargain it away at your convenience.  In this kind of business, you’re all the way in, or all the way out.  Kings don’t get to retire.  A fellow named Lear could have told him that.  Different mob.

Calesian is finished if he tells Lozini he’s working for Buenadella, and a cripple if he won’t.   So he feeds him a lie, says it’s the other possible, Ernie Dulare.  That gets Lozini off balance, thinking about something other than Calesian, who says he’s got something in his bag that will prove he’s telling the truth–what he’s got is the same gun he used to kill Dunstan.  Lozini takes just a second too long figuring out what’s happening.  Well, he probably wouldn’t have enjoyed shuffleboard much, anyway.  Stupid game.

So next we’re with Buenadella the porn merchant, get a bit of his background–he’s the new style of ganglord.  All business.   We’ve seen this dichotomy before in Westlake’s work (361, The Outfit, etc).  When gangsters start going legit, they stop being gangsters.  Difference is, Buenadella, who got his start in the mafia, never really was a gangster at heart.  The coup he’s planned is supposed to be bloodless.   He’s not out to whack anybody.  He really thought that could work.  Then Farrell tells him about Parker and Grofield–who suddenly show up at his house, armed.  So much for that plan.

Grofield can’t believe how tacky the house is–like a bad stage set.  It’s reminiscent of how Westlake described Vigano’s house in Cops and Robbers.  Too many clashing elements, the elegant alongside the vulgar, indicative of nouveau riche tastes.  But he’s got to focus on what’s happening–Parker is tired of the run-around.  He wants their 73 grand, and Buenadella, since he now wants to be the man in charge, is going to cough it up or die.

Thing is, Buenadella spent a lot of that money from the amusement park on this coup of his.  He didn’t need it to pull the coup off successfully, it was just a convenient piece of extra capital he didn’t want Lozini to get his hands on.  He wishes he’d never seen the money, but hindsight won’t stop Parker from killing him if he can’t pay.  Money is very tight in his organization at the moment because it’s supporting not one but two mayoral campaigns–but he figures he can manage to come up with the cash before the election, somehow.  Just to make these two very frightening individuals go their merry way.

Grofield is privately a bit critical of Parker’s negotiating skills here (if you want to call them that)–he’s thinking you can’t push so hard, or they push back.  He’s dealt with businessmen before, in his acting life.  Let Buenadella come around, see the sense of their proposal.   Between the good and bad cop approach, they get Buenadella to at least tentatively agree to give them what they want.  And as he and Parker are walking out the rear-facing french doors they’d come in through, Grofield gets shot in the chest by a guy he barely glimpses, who was waiting outside.

It spun him around.  Everything went out of focus as he turned, like a special effect in a movie.  He killed me! Grofield thought despairingly, and slid down the invisible glass wall of life.

That’s a death scene, if ever there was one.  Any other Richard Stark character, that’d be the last POV chapter he ever got.  The language is not at all ambiguous, but (spoiler alert) Grofield does not die. So what’s up with that?

Up to this point, you could say this was as much a Grofield novel as a Parker–the conclusion to both sagas–Grofield has been co-protagonist, and in this chapter, he’s even seeming to take control of the partnership for a moment.  In his mind, as has been the case since we first met him, he’s the hero, dramatic music playing in the background as he goes through his paces, rescues the maiden, defeats the bad guys (even though he’s technically a bad guy).  That’s how it plays out in his mind.

But not in Stark’s mind.  That’s the problem–Stark has always preferred Parker–Parker belongs in the world of Richard Stark–Grofield, as I’ve said before, is a Westlake character who wandered into Stark’s realm by mistake, and perhaps outstayed his welcome.

Grofield is respected, by Parker and by Stark, for his skills, his professionalism, his refusal to compromise his craft by working in television and film–but his entire life is a compromise.  Is he an actor or a robber?  A devoted husband or a footloose philanderer?   One foot in sea and one on shore, to one thing constant never.  Which is what an actor needs to be, which is why an actor wrote that line.

I think Westlake, the former spear-carrier in summer theater, always had a soft spot for him–he represents some old fantasies, and is certainly based in part on Westlake’s first-ever series protagonist, the lusty young journeyman actor, Phil Crawford, who appeared in several of Westlake’s sleaze novels (only one of which I’ve read).

But in Stark’s world, Grofield’s been living on borrowed time.  He’s always on the brink of dying, in the Parker novels and his own, only to escape the final reckoning by the skin of his proverbial teeth.  Now the bill has come due.  He’s being rejected by that world, cast forth from it.  Westlake may not intend this, but Stark does, and in a Parker novel, Stark has the final word.

And even though Grofield is clearly referring to the man he saw shoot him when he says “He killed me”, he’s always seemed to me to have just an inkling of the fact that he’s a player on a larger stage, and maybe he knows on some level who really pulled the trigger on him just now.  Any actor knows, when the playwright says you’re dead, you have to lie down–but as Raoul Walsh once wryly quipped, when asked why James Cagney’s bullet-riddled character takes forever to die at the end of The Roaring 20’s, “It’s hard to kill an actor.”

This is all getting rather meta, I know, but the most Westlake, Vishnu to Stark’s Shiva, can do for Grofield is intercede quietly on his creation’s behalf, try to soften the blow.   And there’s only one ‘hero’ in this myth-cycle who can do that for him–Parker.

But Parker’s reaction, as he flees out the front door of Buenadella’s house, protected by the presence of a surveillance van manned by state police, is merely It was too bad about Grofield.  Soldiers die in wars all the time.  He’s got no intention of doing anything about it.   His objective at this point is still just the money.  73 grand would tide him and Claire over for some time.  For him to think about anything else, someone’s going to have to push that button in his head that makes him need to kill whoever pushed it.

Grofield’s shooter was Calesian, who had come to Buenadella’s to tell him about Lozini, saw the car, and realized what was happening–then realized too late that both Parker and Grofield were there, so he didn’t wait for them both to come into view as he lay in wait.   So Parker got away, and now he’s got to deal with a raging Buenadella, who is angry enough that a situation he was about to resolve non-violently has just been escalated.  He’s even more upset when he finds out Lozini is dead.   Killing a boss is a serious business–there’s people at the national level who will be angered by it, since they’re bosses too.

But Buenadella’s power, so newly achieved, is already falling away from him–his business as usual approach doesn’t fit the situation, and it’s not like he’s been elected to anything–he’s only boss if people do what he says.  Calesian begins to realize he can be boss now–he’s the one who took charge when things got tough.  So in spite of his seeming lowly status in the organization, he can take control of the whole shooting match now if he wants, and much to his surprise, he really really wants that.   A cop could be the boss of the local mafia.  Gee, no identity crisis there, right?

But this means he has to pin Lozini’s death on somebody else.  Parker will do nicely as the fall guy.  Buenadella fearfully agrees, not knowing how to do anything else.  He’ll make a good figurehead.  Calesian is making all the plans, and the other powers in the Tyler mob fall in behind him–and accept his story that Parker shot Lozini without question–that will also be the story they tell the national syndicate leaders, like Karns.  But that means they can’t cut a deal with Parker anymore.  They have to kill him to shut him up.  Which means they have to lure him in somehow.  Calesian knows just the way–and here comes the one scene people most remember in the book.

A meet is arranged over the phone–Parker makes very sure the emissary wasn’t being tailed.  Ted Shevelly, Lozini’s loyal consigliere (he was never even approached about the coup), who doesn’t know what’s really going on here, is delegated to bring Parker a token of their regard.   One of Grofield’s little fingers in a little white box.   To prove he’s still alive.  They’ll keep sending more fingers, and other things, until Parker agrees to come in and talk.   Then he’ll get his money, and Grofield, and an ambulance to take him away in.

Parker knows there’d be no talking if he took that deal.   But that isn’t the point anymore.  The button has been pushed.  The button nobody in this world can ever un-push.  The money has now assumed a secondary importance to him.   Or maybe it’s been inextricably mingled together in his mind with something else.  Something much older.

And you can imagine that very ancient fire kindling behind his unreadable onyx eyes, his facial expression not altering in the slightest as that thing inside of him is irreversibly triggered, as we have seen happen many times before, but somehow never quite like this.   If they had made that movie they planned, can you think of any actor who could have expressed that subtle yet unmistakable transition?  Lee Marvin, maybe.  Not an option in 1996.

He knows immediately that this isn’t Buenadella’s idea–that Calesian is in charge.  He tells Shevelly that.  Shevelly doesn’t understand.  Shevelly is being very obtuse.  Fatally so.

“It was a stupid thing to kill Al Lozini,” Shevelly said.

Parker frowned at him, looking at the coldly angry face.  “Oh.  They told you I did that, huh?”

Shevelly had nothing to say.  Parker, studying him, saw there was no point arguing with him, and no longer possible to make use of him.  He gestured with the pistol toward Shevelly, saying, “Get out of the car.”

“What?”

“Just get out.  Leave the door open, back away to the sidewalk, keep facing me.”

Shevelly frowned.  “What for?”

“I take precautions.  Do it.”

Puzzled Shevelly opened the door and climbed out onto the thin grass next to the curb.  He took a step to the sidewalk and turned around to face the car again.

Parker leaned far to the right, aiming the pistol out at arm’s length in front of him, the line of the barrel sighted on Shevelly’s head.  Shevelly read his intention and suddenly thrust his hands out protectively in front of himself shouting “I’m only the messenger!”

“Now you’re the message,” Parker told him, and shot him.

Parker spends the next few hours seeking a base of operations–he chooses Calesian’s neighborhood.  He’d already looked Calesian up in the phone book, broke into his apartment, found Lozini’s body.  He’s not interested in any of that now, he’s just aware of the fact that it’s the kind of impersonal upscale neighborhood where strangers will not be noticed.  He picks a large apartment building, uses skeleton keys (Abadandi’s?) to check the apartments that don’t have any mail downstairs.  He finds one belonging to a couple who just left on vacation.  He moves his and Grofield’s things there.  He makes some calls.  Some guys take longer than others to find, but he’s very persistent.  When he’s finished, eleven of the men he talked to are on their way to Tyler.

Now re-reading this, I was moved to wonder–does he have a little black book of fellow heisters, or their contacts, that he carries around with him?  That seems like a potentially dangerous piece of evidence to carry around.   Which would mean he’s got all those numbers committed to memory.   For just such situations as this.  In The Outfit, he used the mail–he sent letters to various heisters he knew, telling them these organization men had violated some unwritten law about leaving their kind alone, and as a result they should feel free to ignore the unwritten law that they don’t hit Outfit businesses, no matter how invitingly soft they look.  And surprisingly enough, it worked–they didn’t do it as a favor to him, but they did it, and it helped bring down Arthur Bronson.

There’s no time for that now.  And he’s not just out to bring down Buenadella, Calesian, or whoever else happens to be in charge.  This is not the same situation–they just owed him money then.  Now they owe him blood.  The entire organization is responsible for sending him that finger.   The entire organization has to pay.   Yes, it is rather reminiscent of Anarchaos, isn’t it?   But Parker is no neophyte, like Rolf Malone.  And Grofield isn’t his brother, not that we can be sure a mere genetic relationship would matter to him.  No matter how Parker may or may not feel about his fallen colleague, Grofield’s plight, in and of itself, wouldn’t be enough to make Parker act this way.  But the finger was.  Why?

Leaving that question to one side for the moment, we now move through a series of chapters from the perspective of some characters from past books we haven’t seen in some time, and at least two we never thought we’d see again.   As the moon continues to wane over Tyler, eleven of Parker’s fellow ‘wolves’ (and one lovely little bitch named Brenda, and I only mean that as a compliment) descend upon Tyler, which as we were informed early in the book, never did build a wall around itself, to serve as protection from rapacious bands of brigands, and other beasts of the night.  Such things are in the distant past.  Not anything a modern American city needs worry about.

The 1927-28 New York Yankees line-up was famously known as ‘Murderer’s Row’, but they got nothing on this all star line-up.  Stan Devers and Philly Webb, from the Air Force base job in Monequois.  Dan Wycza, Frank Elkins, and Ralph Wiss, from the legendary Copper Canyon heist.   Mike Carlow, the ultimate getaway driver, sprung from jail after getting nabbed for his role in the Indianapolis coin convention score–as a neat bonus, we find out that Otto Mainzer, the loud-mouth Nazi rapist they worked with on that one had, with his usual fine-tuned grasp of the social graces, made himself so generally noxious to the law that they were practically begging Carlow to accept a deal in exchange for turning state’s.  No prisoner’s dilemma here, since the two loathed each other at first sight, and nobody wanted to give Mainzer a break.

But wait, there’s more!  Ed and Brenda Mackey who we met in Plunder Squad, are driving there, everyone’s favorite fun crime couple, exchanging saucy single-entendres, and not in any way discussing the fact that last time we saw Ed, he was supposed to be lying dead in a burning warehouse, after Parker left him there.  I’m sure that will be explained very shortly.

Just to remind us how this atypically long Parker novel got started, Ducasse, Dalesia, and the other Hurley (the one Parker and Grofield did not shoot full of holes for ratting on them) are coming as well.  Last and the precise opposite of least, there’s Handy McKay, the first and finest of Parker’s partners in crime, out of retirement at last, courtesy of Uncle Sam’s infrastructure upgrades that have made his little diner in Maine unprofitable.  With a few pertinent questions to ask of his old comrade.

Murderer’s Row, indeed.   Parker’s getting the band back together, except most of these guys don’t even know each other, except through him.   You realize what a deep bench of irreformable hard cases he’s compiled in his head over the years.   This is the dream team he always aspired to create, but somehow there was always a bad apple, a weak link.   Not this time.  And just as in Copper Canyon, there’s twelve of them (Grofield makes thirteen), and just as in The Score, you wonder if you’re supposed to be drawing some blasphemous inference or other.

Parker isn’t just calling in the reserves–he’s drawing up battle plans.   To that end, he hijacks poor Frankie Faran, who manages that club Parker and Grofield hit a few nights back.  Frankie is no great shakes in the Tyler mob, but due to his position–you might say he’s their social director–he’s had many an informal chat over drinks with all the major players, and he knows everything Parker needs to know about all the rackets in town.  Which Parker needs to know because Murderer’s Row doesn’t work for nothing.  Frankie is terrified of what his friends would do to him if they found out he’d spilled the beans to Parker, but we’ve seen this dance before, and in no time at all, he’s much more terrified of what Parker will do to him if he doesn’t.

In the meantime, the moon over Tyler has shrunk to a mere silver sliver–tomorrow night it’ll be pitch black out, or would be if some joker turned out the lights.  In that bit of remaining moonlight, we see Grofield, lying in a bed in Buenadella’s house, hooked up to tubes, breathing shallowly, his hands making the occasional spasmodic movement (Should I mention that this chilling tableau reminds me of the stroke scene in Ex Officio?  Probably not).   His heart stops.  Then starts up again.  Hang in there, buddy.   You’ve got Vishnu in your corner, and Shiva has bigger fish to fry.

That gets us about 212 pages in, and that’ll do for Part 2.  Just ninety-four pages to go.  And if you can point out a more perfectly paralyzing pulse-pounding ninety-four pages anywhere else in the annals of fictive crime, I’d be only too grateful.  But perhaps a mite skeptical.

So I just have to cough up Part 3 and we’re done.  In our dimension (in the Northern Hemisphere), the next Butcher’s Moon will occur this coming Sunday, September 13th.  I’m making no promises here, but I’ll see what I can do.

(Part of Friday’s Forgotten Books)

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Filed under Butcher's Moon, Donald Westlake novels, Richard Stark

Review: The Score

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Several of the books had been by this writer Richard Stark, always about the same crook, named Parker.   Robbery stories, big capers, armored cars, banks, all that sort of thing.   And what Kelp really liked about the books was that Parker always got away with it.  Robbery stories where the crooks didn’t get caught at the end–fantastic.    For Kelp, it was like being an American Indian and going to a western movie where the cowboys lose.  Wagon train wiped out, cavalry lost in the desert, settlement abandoned, ranchers and farmers driven back across the Mississippi.  Grand.

From Jimmy the Kid, by Donald Westlake.

By late 1963, Westlake had published four novels about a professional heavy heister–not simply an armed robber, but a specialist, who typically works with a ‘string’ of fellow professionals, to commit institutional robbery–that is to say, stealing from organizations, private or public in nature.   Banks, payrolls, businesses that have a lot of cash or valuables on hand, etc.  He may sometimes steal from an individual, but it’s never his preferential option.   He may work alone or with just one partner at times, but ditto.

He feels most comfortable in a group of about five skilled reliable people he already knows, scoping out the target, coming up with a solid plan (one of Parker’s two specialties), taking untraceable cash, making an agreed-upon split, and then going their separate ways, without any ‘civilians’ getting hurt along the way, because death ups the ante for law enforcement.   And it never did quite work out that way, in any of the novels.   But that was always the goal.

And yet we never see this kind of job in any detail before the fifth novel.   There are maybe eight organized armed robberies depicted in the four previous books (depends on how you define it), most of them quite briefly.   They are all more or less incidental to the main story in each book, and Parker is only involved in about half of them.   In The Score, for the very first time, the growing readership for these books saw a job from beginning to end–the job itself is the story.   The job, and the men who do it.    And there’s a lot of them–twelve, in fact.  Each of whom is a protagonist in his own right.    It’s a real  heist story, of a kind movie audiences were well familiar with from the past few decades, and particularly the 1950’s and 60’s, when the genre in its modern form began to really take hold in its own right.

Though if you wanted to trace it back all the way to its roots–well, isn’t the Argonautica basically a heist epic?   If you look at what actually happens in it, it’s more amoral (or downright immoral) than anything from 20th century Hollywood (including the Ray Harryhausen adaptation of the Argonautica).   Jason steals the Golden Fleece from people who never harmed him, killing hundreds (maybe thousands) of people along the way, with the help of his legendary band of heroic thieves, with the gods basically serving as backers for the whole operation.

In the latter part of the myth, he abandons the woman who gave up everything for him (without whom he could never have gotten the Fleece), leading to famously horrific consequences, but he still gets his son on the throne, lives to what was then considered a pretty good age, and dies in his sleep, crushed by a timber that falls off his rotting ship.   We’re told this was the punishment of the gods for Jason violating his oath to love Medea forever, but hey–how many 20th Century noir heroes ever got off that easy?

People all over the world have always enjoyed a story about a group of talented individuals getting together to take something that doesn’t belong to them. Basically ever since people started telling each other stories.  How that story ends tells you a lot about the culture that produces it.   In America, the story usually ends with the robbers getting caught, or killed, or losing the money, or else they were stealing from bad people so it was never really stealing (that last variation is increasingly dominant at the movies these days).   Cecil B. DeMille said American audiences like to see sinful doings, but then they want the sinners punished at the end, so they (the audience) may be purged of vicarious guilt.   C.B. knew what he was talking about.

In France, the heist story usually ends the same way, but somehow not for quite the same reasons–it’s more of an existentialist thing–we’re all guilty of the crime of being born, or something like that.  In Italy and the UK, the story usually ends comically, showing us the absurdity of the participants (whose absurdity we share in), but again we see the thieves get their comeuppance somehow.   They never just walk happily off into the sunset with the loot, unless they’re taking it from other criminals.   There’s always a catch somewhere.

These approaches all have their merits.   But there is another alternative–suppose the thieves just go in and take what they want from legitimate non-criminal enterprises, and get away clean, and spend the money, and live to steal again?  Maybe take a casualty or two, some things go wrong along the way, courtesy of Murphy’s Law, but they deal with the complications, and come out the other end richer for the effort.   Someday they’ll die, but someday everybody dies.   How long they live will depend in part on how smart, intrepid, and careful they are, as well as on luck.   Just desserts have nothing to do with anything.

And they are actually enjoying their work, mind you–doing it not as some kind of get-rich-quick scheme, something they’re going to try once and then retire to South America or wherever–habitual offenders, not dabblers.   And not doing this because they were forced into it somehow–a time-tested moral escape hatch in the movies–but because it’s what they do, who they are, how they want to live.

How would that be?   Wouldn’t you like to know?   Well, read The Score (you should anyway, before you read this spoiler-laden review).   And possibly some earlier books, but I don’t really know any earlier ones to recommend to you.   They may exist, but I haven’t read them.   Or heard of them.   And forget about the movies.

I shouldn’t forget about The Man With the Getaway Face, which did show a rather small scale payroll heist, and while two of the four participants end up dead, Parker and Handy get away clean with more money than they’d have had if one of the other two hadn’t tried a doublecross.  Parker steals money that was intended to pay honest hardworking people,  murders without the slightest qualm a female accomplice who was going to take it all for herself, and if there’s a moral to the story at all, it sure isn’t “crime does not pay.”

In many ways, The Score is simply expanding and elaborating on that section of the earlier book, but The Man With the Getaway Face is more about what comes before and after the heist than the heist itself.   It ends with Parker inadvertently performing what might be called a good deed, by killing a guy who was a much bigger crook than he and his confederates could ever possibly be–rough justice, but still justice.    We’re not 100% of the way there yet.

In The Score, there’s no moral escape hatch.   We’re in on this job with Parker & Co., fully implicated in their crime, and rooting like hell for them to succeed.   They may not all make it, but neither will some decent law-abiding people in the story who don’t remotely deserve the fate awaiting them.   There is no justice here.   There is only what you do and what you fail to do.    There’s life and death and what comes in-between, and how you deal with all that.    Nothing else.  The only values Richard Stark holds dear are professionalism, individualism, and self-understanding.  The rest is negotiable.   Donald Westlake may not feel quite the same way about it, but Westlake isn’t in the driver’s seat here.

This book opens in Jersey City, with Parker headed for a meeting about a job–after two introductory chapters, there’s a relatively brief flashback that could just as easily be left out, except it shows us a rare glimpse of Parker in non-working mode, at a Florida resort hotel, getting ogled by bikini-clad girls, and wishing he was on a job again, only six months after he finally got everything squared away with Mal Resnick, The Outfit, and Bett Harrow.   And he can’t just relax and enjoy it.   He could basically just point at one of those good-looking secretaries on vacation and she’d toss him her room keys–and he’s bored, restless.   His cyclical sex drive has petered out again.

You’d think after a year or so like the one he just had (that started with his wife shooting him), he’d want at least a year or so off.   And you’d think he could afford it, after nabbing what in today’s money would well over $700,000.  Yes, he’s living in a luxury hotel, he’s eating in fancy restaurants, he’s wearing tailored suits, and he’s a really good tipper (Parker has learned that it pays to schmooze the help) but his lifestyle is pretty spartan for all that, and he doesn’t want to own anything.  We’re told that he’s only got 17 grand left.   Which  is more than the average working slob back then made in three years, but Parker figures he’s got enough for a few more months.

I remember one interview in which Westlake said he’d love to ask Parker what he did with all that money–the only answer  that presents itself to me is that Parker can’t live without working, which for him can only mean heisting, so he spends the money faster than he has to, so he’ll have an excuse to work again.   He has to find a balance between taking enough jobs to satisfy this need, but not so many that he ends up in prison (which would destroy him).

In The Hunter, we were told that he worked once a year on average, but that was when he had Lynn.     Without her, he’s restless, unrooted, and needs to work more.  He’ll have to do something about this eventually, but for the moment he’s going to tell himself his reserve fund is too low, not ask himself how he managed to blow through almost a hundred thousand dollars in a few months, and go to Jersey City to talk to some men about a potential job.

The finger on this job is a guy named Edgars, who has hooked up with Paulus, a safecracker Parker knows, who is solid at his specialty, but a jumpy paranoid wreck otherwise.   Paulus has also called in Dan Wycza, a sometime-wrestler, and Alan Grofield, a most-of-the-time actor.   We’re going to be seeing Dan on and off throughout the series, and Grofield  is going to be Richard Stark’s other franchise boy for a while–the supporting cast is really shaping up.

What Wycza and Grofield have in common is that heisting is a means of financing their other lives–Dan is a fitness nut, as well as a pro wrestler.   Grofield got into heisting when the theater company he was a part of ran out of money, and they decided to knock over a supermarket.   Parker considers them solid pros, but they are very very different from him, and from Handy McKay, who tells Parker to count him out of this job–he really is retired this time.   Which serves to remind us of what’s come before, while telling us we’re going in a new direction.   The first cycle of the Parker saga, that centered around his trouble with The Outfit, has concluded.  This is the transitional book.

Edgars breaks out a slide projector, and shows them shots of Copper Canyon, a small mining town in North Dakota.   It takes them a few minutes to realize what he’s proposing–that they rob every major enterprise in town, the banks, the mining payroll, jewelry stores, everything, all in one night, taking over the police station and the telephone switchboard in the process–he figures they’ll get over a quarter of a million dollars.    He also figures they’ll need maybe thirty men.   There’s only one road out of the town, which is surrounded on three sides by high cliffs.   If anything goes wrong, they could be trapped in there.   And there’s a state trooper station right outside the town limits.

Parker smells trouble all over Edgars and his crazy scheme, but the professional in him is intrigued by the challenge.  He says they wouldn’t need half that many guys to keep a lid on this sleepy little burg in the middle of the night.  He finally settles on twelve–enough to do the job, cover all the bases; few enough for everyone to get a decent split and avoid the kind of over-complexity that dooms a job.   Also a rather disturbing gospel reference, presumably unintended on his part, if not Stark’s.

They start reaching out to various professional acquaintances (including our old friend Salsa from The Outfit), financing the job via a doctor in New York, buying guns from the usual unsavory people–also cars, walkie-talkies, and other equipment–and firming up the plan with a bit of advance scouting, done under the pretense of selling insurance (which comes up so often in Westlake’s novels and short stories, I have to figure he actually did sell insurance for a while).   It must be said that in this genre, the preliminaries can be as much fun as the main event.  And particularly when Richard Stark is spinning the yarn.

It turns out Edgars has been shacked up with a good-looking 30-ish blonde named Jean–a very different kind of blonde than Bett Harrow–a New York girl, short, stacked, working class, a bit prone to theatrics.   Edgars wants her to come along, because he’s worried she’ll find another boyfriend.   Parker says forget it–eventually, it’s arranged for her to wait for them in Thief River Falls Minnesota, which is a real place (unlike Copper Canyon).

Jean takes an immediate disliking to Parker, calling him ‘Ugly’, and of course tries to get him in bed maybe 20 minutes after they first meet.   He says maybe after the job is done.   He does not say this in front of Edgars.   He doesn’t know if he means it or not.  It’s not really that important at the moment, but he will need a woman afterwards.   In the privacy of his mind he calls Jean a tramp, which seems a mite judgmental for him–and Stark–is Westlake still working through some issues with womankind here?    Perhaps, but in spite of her flaws (or because of them) Jean is the most likable woman Parker has met to date in the novels.   The competition is admittedly not fierce thus far.   It gets better.

They get set up in an abandoned mining camp outside town, which will serve as their hideout for a few days after the heist.   One by one, we get to know a bit about each of the 12 participants–except Edgars, who is hiding something from his colleagues (and the reader).   They are all quirky freewheeling individuals, some more professional than others, and Parker has his work cut out for him getting them to function together as a unit, but morale is good overall.    It’s a decent string.    Parker is pleased.   But there’s still something about Edgars……

The operation itself takes place within in Part 3 of the book,  which runs from page 79 through 125 in the first edition paperback.   It’s a small marvel of impeccably choreographed storytelling: constantly switching perspectives–we begin with the two police officers in their prowl car, who get called back to their station by a nervous-sounding dispatcher–only to find that he’s nervous because he’s got a whole lot of guns pointed at him.   Parker, the organizer, troubleshooter, and (if the need arises) enforcer, will take their place for a few hours–he’s going to be riding around in the police car, wearing a mask, looking for problems–and that’s an image that sticks with you a long time.

All the main points of authority, the police station, the firehouse, the switchboard, will be taken over and run by thieves.   Small town Middle America, living under a self-imposed curfew (that makes Parker’s life so much easier), has been turned on its head–Copper Canyon is under heister law, and only a handful of the locals even know about it.   Most are peacefully sleeping, though Stark says a few are reading, having sex, occupied with their own lives, while all the while Parker & Co. are opening safes, and carting everything of value in Copper Canyon into a waiting Mack Truck.  Even the radio station is shut down (and there’s no mention of television).  For a few hours, everything stops.   Everything but the thievery.

One beautiful little vignette involves a 19 year old named Eddie who was having an enjoyable night of sex with his girlfriend Betty in her own bed while her parents are out of town.   He doesn’t want his parents to know about this, and  he and Betty took a post-coital nap that lasted well past curfew.   She wants him to stay, but he feels like he has to sneak back home–and along the way, he sees the bank being robbed.   He does what any good citizen would do–he calls the cops from a phone booth.   They tell him to stay where he is.   Parker comes around in the prowl car and picks him up.   Eddie can’t believe it.  Parker leaves him bound and gagged in an alleyway, catching a cold, and wondering why the hell he didn’t just stay warm in bed with his girl.   He’s asking himself, why did he care if his parents knew?   Because he’s not ready to think of himself as an adult yet, even though he’s acting like one.

I will say, this is one of the few times the movies improved on a Parker novel–in Alain Cavalier’s adaptation, Mise a Sac, which switches the action to rural France, the poor kid (whose girlfriend is beautiful, and French, so maybe more to be envied than pitied?) ends up in the town jail, looking truly confused.   There’s a good reason why Westlake didn’t write it like that, but Cavalier picks up perfectly on what the story is really about here–subversion of social authority–you only have to take over a few key positions in a town like this to control it.   Then the crooks can put the honest citizens behind bars if they want–it’s topsy-turvy, a criminal Walpurgisnacht.    And then it all falls apart.

We get the warning from one of the bound-and-gagged cops when he recognizes Edgars’ voice–as we finally get into Edgars’ head, we learn the story Parker should have uncovered, but didn’t–probably because he wanted to work this job so much, he didn’t listen to the alarm bells in his head.  Edgars was the Chief of Police there–a corrupt brutal one, who was fired and run out of town.

What irks him the most is that they didn’t have anything solid on him–so even though he was guilty as sin, firing him without proof of wrongdoing was breaking the rules, hypocritical, unfair.   Very reminiscent of Clay’s anger at society in The Mercenaries, when everyone assumed he was guilty of a hit&run–which he was, but they didn’t prove it.    When I see Westlake returning to a theme like that again and again, I know it has to be coming from somewhere inside of him.   This is an emotion he personally has felt.   Let’s stick a pin in that, and move on.

Edgars swore he’d get even, and for him, getting even means not just robbing Copper Canyon blind, but destroying it utterly, leaving its smug city fathers alive to survey the ruins.   He knew Parker and the others wouldn’t go along if he told them this, but he figures once it’s already happening, they’ll help him finish the job, because they don’t have any other choice.   Yeah.  He’s nuts.   That can happen when you take a man’s whole identity away from him–Edgars doesn’t know how to be a decent crook, but he can’t be a cop anymore, even a crooked one, so his energies turn inwards–he becomes his own opposite.    It’s driven him over the edge.   And he takes a lot of people with him, starting with the policemen left in his care, who he guns down without mercy.

It escalates quickly–he’s gotten some confiscated hand grenades from a storage room at the station house, and he uses one to blow the station house up–then on to the firehouse, where he shoots one of his fellow heisters,  Chambers, a Kentucky redneck, who ironically enough was just hoping the firemen he was guarding would give him an excuse to kill them–but he still won’t just let Edgars gun them down in cold blood–maybe he gets a few years off his stretch in Purgatory for that?  Sorry, the Catholic in us Irish boys dies hard.

Boom goes the firehouse.   Edgars then heads for the gas station, with convenient above-ground tanks, which he’s going to use to set the whole town on fire–Parker and Wycza have caught up with him by now, and are probably about to kill him, but they never get the chance–he blows himself up.   Copper Canyon is burning.   The job is soured.   The whole crew gets out of town in a hurry, with most of the money they were after.   The state troopers, headquartered right outside town, drive right past them without even stopping.  Parker is pissed.   And he doesn’t even know about Grofield’s girl yet.

Grofield was at the telephone switchboard, and unfortunately or not, depending on how you look at it, the girl they left untied to handle any late-night calls,  named Mary Deegan, was very attractive–no physical description of her, but you just assume she’s got to be.   She immediately hit it off with Grofield.   He took his mask off (among other things), and she’s seen his face (among other things).   Not the last time Grofield will mix business with pleasure–he’s no Parker.

Mary wants to go along with Grofield–nay, she insists.   She wants out of this dead end town.   She’s ready to try being somebody other than a switchboard girl.  She doesn’t quite threaten to provide the police with a physical description of Grofield, but she reminds him she can.     The sex must have been really good, because Grofield finally agrees.   When he shows up at the Mack Truck with her, Wycza blows a gasket, but there’s no time to argue, so she blows town with them, sitting in Grofield’s lap.    It’s been an interesting night.

So back at the hideout, things are, shall we say, tense.   Thanks to Edgars, the police are looking not just for thieves, but cop-killing, fireman-slaughtering, town-burning maniacs.   Helicopters are passing overhead, but they have the automotive transport well-concealed.  Paulus is about ready to bolt.  And thanks to Grofield not being able to stop being–Grofield–they have in their midst a young female ‘hostage’ whose uncle is one of the dead firemen.   And now she’s seen all their faces.   Parker takes Grofield aside, and tells him where he can bury Mary’s body.   It isn’t a suggestion.

Grofield is capable of quite a lot of things, but killing a woman probably isn’t one of them.  He and Parker have a tense little discussion, that ends with Parker asking to see Mary alone.   He’s got to know.

She looked up and studied his face in the matchlight, and when it was dark again she said, “The simplest thing would just be to throw me off the cliff here, wouldn’t it?”

“It would.”

“Why don’t you?  You’re not afraid of Grofield.”

“I don’t kill as the easy way out of something.  If I kill, it’s because I don’t have any choice.”

“You mean self-defense.”

“Wrong.  I mean it’s the only way to get what I want.”

In spite of himself, Parker is impressed with her.   She knows exactly what she wants.   It wasn’t just a random impulse she’ll later regret.   She’s sorry her uncle is dead, but that cuts her last tie to Copper Canyon.  She’d been planning her escape for a while, and Grofield showed up at the right time.  She doesn’t know if they’ll stay together, and she doesn’t care.   She wants the new life he can show to her–the theater, travel, big cities–a whole new identity.   She wants Mary Deegan dead as much as Parker does.   This is something she’s doing for herself, but she can also stabilize Grofield, maybe keep him out of jail, force him to do boring bourgeois things his artist’s soul is repulsed by, like filling out imaginative tax returns to justify his illicit income.   That way Parker can go on working with him in the future.   That’s well and good, but it isn’t the main reason he lets her convince him.  Parker can understand her motives for doing what she did.   They make sense to him.   She can live.

In the meantime, Paulus is about to die–Edgars’ deception has confirmed his most paranoid instincts, the circling helicopters doing their grid searches have unnerved him completely, and the calm professional in him collapses, replaced by a panic-stricken amateur.  He wants to leave, with his split of the take, now, while the roadblocks are still up.   The others can’t let him do this, so he sneaks out and does it anyway–Parker, Wycza, and Salsa block his car on a narrow cliffside road, and losing his last solitary shred of self-composure, he goes off the edge–taking his share with him.   Salsa finds this oddly fitting.

There’s plenty left to split between them–a bit over 30k per man.   They give a few hundred to Grofield and Mary as a joke wedding gift (which turns out to be prophetic).   Pop Phillips, the most respectable-looking of them, checks to see if it’s safe to leave–when he comes back and gives the all clear, they pack up their vehicles and head out.   They robbed an entire town, inadvertently leading to its near-total destruction, and the death of uniformed personnel–and they’re just going to drive away from it.    Pity some folks got hurt, but that’s nothing to do with them.   They were just doing their jobs.   Shit happens.

Parker’s only problem with the job was how messy it got.   He was exceptionally satisfied with it, otherwise–it seems to have touched some primal aesthetic sense within him.    It was a beautiful job, a perfect plan, marred only by one man’s madness.   And that madman has failed, because you can’t kill a town with a viable source of income–namely a working mine–the burned sections of Copper Canyon will be rebuilt (a good excuse for urban renewal), and people will gradually stop thinking about it.   They will never know Edgars was the man behind it.   Because his body was burned to ashes.   Nothing left of him.

Back at Thief River Falls, Parker pulls one last posthumous heist–he tells Jean about Edgars.   She isn’t what you’d call grief-stricken, but she is moved to to ponder the tragicomic trajectory of her life to date.

She shook her head, a sour grin on her face.  “I pick ’em, don’t I?  Tell me, Parker, what’s wrong with you.”

“There’s nothing wrong with me.”

“There’s got to be something, Parker, or I wouldn’t pick you.”

“You didn’t pick me.   Get another glass.”

“Oh, don’t act so goddam tough.   Where are you going from here?”

“Drive to Chicago, take a plane to Miami.   You like Miami?”

“How the hell do I know?   This is the furthest I’ve ever been from New York in my life.”

Jean doesn’t really know who she is, what she wants, but if Parker has any ideas, if he’ll just treat her like a person, she’s game.  Maybe she’ll turn into a butterfly. How would she know?  He wonders just a moment what it would be like to have someone like Mary–someone more self-possessed.   Someone who would know.   Where do you find something like that?   But this is what he’s got for now.  And she’ll do just fine.   For now.   He removes her chrysalis.   The windows are wide open.   The story is over.

What was it all about?   All that death and madness and sex and plunder, interspersed with a few moments of self-discovery and introspection.  It’s a great story–one of the best I’ve ever read, in any genre or none–but was there any point to it at all?    Maybe Grofield, who we will be seeing again in the near future (Mary a bit further off into the future), has a clue for us.

Earlier in the book, before the heist, when the whole gang is chilling at the hideout, waiting for the curtain to rise, we’re told that  Grofield is off in a corner, reciting both parts from Henry IV, Part 1, Act 1, Scene 2.    I can’t be the first Stark reader who was ever moved to look that up, but I can’t find any other review that mentions it–it’s not in the Cavalier film (in which ‘Grofield’ isn’t an actor) or in Darwyn Cooke’s graphic novel adaptation.   You can read the whole thing here–but if you can’t take your Elizabethan straight, try this.

Lord, what fools we mortals be.   But while we may all be crazy, some are decidedly more so than others, and in our next book, Donald Westlake (back to his old self again, writing for Random House), is going to try and see just how crazy crazy can get.

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Filed under Donald Westlake novels, Parker Novels