Tag Archives: The Sour Lemon Score

Review: Firebreak

When the phone rang, Parker was in the garage, killing a man.  His knees pressed down on the interloper’s back, his hands were clasped around his forehead.  He heard the phone ring, distantly, in the house, as he jerked his forearms back; heard the neck snap; heard the phone’s second ring, cut off, as Claire answered, somewhere in the house.

There’s a part of me feels like that quote I just typed, the opening paragraph of the 20th Parker novel, is all the review it could ever possibly need.  If you haven’t read it yet, which would presumably mean you don’t have a copy, what are you doing here?  Buy, borrow, download, steal.  We’ll talk later.

Over the past few years, Westlake had been adjusting to the renewed presence of Richard Stark in his writing life.  It can’t have been easy.  Stark was an exciting voice to write in, but giving that part of him free rein came with certain inherent consequences, as his wife half-humorously detailed in an article she wrote about life with Mr. Westlake and his various authorial personas.  To write as Stark, he had to become Stark, and Stark was never easy to live with.

As the new Parker series progressed, he got more confident.  Comeback and Backflash both felt a bit retro, and I remain convinced they are both set quite a few years before their respective dates of publication (and that Backflash may in fact take place some time before Comeback).

In both those books, he had Parker working with old and trusted associates from earlier novels.  Strong well-defined personalities, some of whom could have easily anchored a novel themselves.  Who wouldn’t love to read a novel about Brenda and Ed Mackey, Dan Wycza and Noelle Kay Braselle, or maybe a little escapade with Mike Carlow and Lou Sternberg?

But in Flashfire, which I am forced to deem the first truly contemporary entry in the series since Butcher’s Moon, he had Parker working with–and then against–total strangers.  No familiar faces other than Parker and Claire (there are phoned-in cameos from a few old stalwarts, but that hardly counts).  And that book, as I’ve just finished detailing, is a frustrating melange of false notes, dangling plot threads, and social commentary–the commentary is hardly a new thing for Stark, but it doesn’t feel organic to the story this time, somehow.

We know it’s set sometime in the Mid-to-Late 90’s, because of the material being covered, and because it’s the very first time the word ‘internet’ appears in a Donald Westlake novel.  At least I can’t think of any earlier instances–obviously Wally Knurr is using the internet in the Dortmunder books he appears in, but it’s never called that, and it’s clearly pre-WWW.  The internet referenced in Flashfire isn’t just for nerds anymore–even semi-literate redneck Neo-Nazi militiamen in the Everglades are using it.  But other than the fact that a curvy blonde realtor can use online databases to run a credit check on Parker, penetrate his false identity, it doesn’t really impact the story at all.

Donald Westlake was a different order of nerd.  You wouldn’t expect a man who pecks his books out on a manual typewriter–in the early 21st century–to be any kind of web wizard.  How retro can you get?  But he was never interested much in writing about the past (and it’s impossible to imagine him getting into Steampunk).  No doubt he was interested by the possibilities of the new online medium–a great new tool, but also a point of vulnerability.  Would it empower the enterprising individualist, free him/her in new and previously unimaginable ways–or absorb him/her into the machine matrix forever?  (Yeah, I’d assume he did see that movie.)  Bit of both, maybe?

Stark needed some time to catch up, as did Parker, so going retro with the first two books made sense.  So did bringing some of the other Stark characters forward through the time warp with Parker.  But if these books are going to be something other than a mere exercise in noir-stalgia  (You see what I did there?  Google it, and you’ll see how many bloggers beat me to that pun.), he’s got to bring Parker into the new era, which means Parker is going to have to deal with people who understand this new tool, who can wield it as effortlessly as he wields a Smith & Wesson Terrier.

Some will be his enemies–so just as certainly, some will have to be his allies, since Parker himself could never venture into the cyberworld–he’s too well-rooted in the real one.  But will they be allies he can rely upon?  Or will they prove unstable, off-kilter, a danger to him and everyone else they work with, as well as themselves?  The answer to that question depends on whether such a person can truly know himself.

And the thing about the internet, and all that comes with it, is that it can seriously erode one’s sense of self.  You can get lost in there, out of touch with reality.  Parker can be a good teacher when it comes to embracing the real.  But as the song lyric goes, when you become a teacher, by your pupils you’ll be taught.  Let’s start getting to know the cast of characters here.

So Parker just killed a man, with his hands, in his own garage (he thinks of it as Claire’s house, but the garage seems to be Parker’s special domain there, going by the set-up).  He spotted the guy approaching the house through the surrounding woods, with a silenced .357 Colt Trooper in hand.  He waited for the hitter to be halfway in through the garage window before he made his move.  Hard to say whether the man’s primary reaction was terror or confusion.  Who’s hitting who here?

And no sooner has he finished the intruder off than he has to take a call from Frank Elkins, who is partners with Ralph Wiss.  Parker’s known these two a very long time indeed–you might call them co-founders of the franchise.  At the end of The Hunter, Parker pulls a heist on an operation run by The Outfit, to get back the money he feels that crime syndicate owes him.

His partners in that job were Elkins, Wiss, and a guy named Wymerpaugh (who had a brief cameo in The Handle).  He’d worked with Elkins before the events of that book, and Elkins brought in Wiss, who wields a mean chisel.  In The Score, they both appear again–Wiss is needed for his expertise in safe cracking, and Elkins comes along as his sideman.  Parker marks them both as solid steady pros you can count on in the clutch, so they’re among the elite string he recruits to finish off the Tyler mob in Butcher’s MoonFirebreak would be their final appearance in the series.

Lucky charms, for Parker, and for Stark–when these two make an appearance, you know you’re in for a successful heist and a good book.  But since they only appeared briefly in The Hunter, and then in two books with a lot of other characters, they never really got much attention before now.  They’re not the most distinctive or finely drawn of Parker’s criminal cohorts, and they’re not really what this book is all about either.  But this is their one final moment in the spotlight, and they make the most of it.

This book has two distinct plots.  One is Parker planning and carrying out a heist with three other guys.  The other is Parker tracking down and dealing with whoever was responsible for the attempt on his life (that would probably have encompassed Claire’s life as well, to avoid leaving any witnesses).  And each of these two main plots has a number of sub-plots within it.

And the connection between the stories is that the hit on Parker only happened because of the heist–before he even knew about the heist.  How’d that happen?  The damn internet, that’s how.  If Parker had known in advance how much of a headache that was going to be, how much it was going to complicate his working life, he’d have taken out everybody working on it.  Well, too late now.  The humans actually came up with a stupider idea than psychoanalysis, another means of compromising themselves, making private things public–instead of telling their secrets to a doctor or a priest, now they tell them to the whole fucking planet.   Why do they always have to share?

Parker goes to a nearby gas station to talk more freely with Elkins.  You still don’t go into detail over the phone, so they arrange to meet in Lake Placid–Parker indirectly signals to Elkins that he’ll be checked in at a hotel there under the name of Viktor Charov.  The name of the man who just tried to kill him.  And you thought he had no sense of humor.  Well, it’s probably also because he’s got the guy’s ID now, and a sample of his signature he can forge on the hotel register.

So after getting rid of Charov’s car, with Charov inside of it, in a nearby abandoned stone quarry, Parker drives up to the famed Adirondack ski resort and site of two past Olympics (I’ve always preferred Saranac Lake myself, Lake Placid is kind of tacky).  He meets Elkins, Wiss, and their new associate, whose services are deemed essential to this particular job.

This new guy is a protégé of Wiss, a newly minted member of The Profession, recently paroled.  He’s supposed to be in Massachusetts; they made him wear one of those ankle monitors, and he can’t cross a state line without permission, but electronic surveillance is never going to work well for a guy like him.  He just reprogrammed the device to tell the law what it wants to hear, so he can come and meet Parker.  That’s his specialty.  He’s the uber-nerd in this story.  Well, one of them.  See if his physical description sounds at all familiar to you.

The one he knew was Elkins’ partner, Ralph Wiss, a safe and lock man, small and narrow, with sharp nose and chin.  The other one didn’t look right in this company.  Early thirties, medium build gone a bit to flab, he had a round neat head, thinning sandy hair, and a pale forgettable face except for prominent horn-rim eyeglasses.  While Parker and the other two were dressed in dark trousers and shirts and jackets, this one was in a blue button-down shirt with pens in a pen protector in the pocket, plus uncreased chinos and bulky elaborate sneakers.  Parker looked at this one, waiting for an explanation, and Elkins came past him to say, “You know Ralph.  This is Larry Lloyd.  Larry, this is Parker.”

Donald Westlake, if Donald Westlake had followed one of those innumerable sidepaths not taken along the road of his life.   He was, let’s remember, a science fiction fan, a jazz buff; he was probably into stuff like tinkering with radios and audio equipment, going by various references in his stories; he seems to have enjoyed building things.  Maybe weak in the math department, I wouldn’t know.  But a few different twists and turns, he might have been a tech nerd, instead of a word nerd.  While still the same basic personality underneath, of course.  Identity, you might say, is what you choose to do with the underlying potential you were born with.  Or not to do.

Larry Lloyd chose to go into the burgeoning field of internet apps, but for all his formidable technical prowess, he didn’t have that weird thing that guys like Steve Jobs have–he wasn’t an innovator, or a salesman.  He joined up with a partner who had that knack (and, it’s implied, less technical ability, meaning he needed someone like Larry to do the wonk work).  Just as they were about to make a fortune, after years of belt-tightening, the partner screwed him out of his share, acted like he was just an employee, and the partner’s brother-in-law, a lawyer, made sure that would stick–Larry should have read the fine print.

Larry went to the partner’s house and threw him off a balcony.  Unfortunately, he lived.  The partner didn’t only screw over Larry, and he wasn’t quite as slick as he thought, so they both ended up in jail–Larry was instrumental in that happening, since he’d had read up on game theory, knew about The Prisoner’s Dilemma–so he got out first.  Parker has no real problem with that, but makes a mental note Larry will squeal if he’s squeezed.

And once he was out, let’s just say employment opportunities in his old field of endeavor were not all that might be wished for (going to prison for attempted murder can do that to a guy).  He’d done some networking in prison, and that led him to Wiss–in a sense, Larry’s the new version of guys like Wiss–cracksmen were the old school nerds of the heisting profession, the ones who figured out how to get past locked doors, bank vaults, and alarm systems.  Security tech is changing now, and they need to recruit from the new order of nerds in order to keep up.

In what might be considered a bit of foreshadowing with regards to the resurfacing of certain other unpleasant persons featured in past books, Larry tells Parker (who is not at all sure what to think of this new recruit) that he met Otto Mainzer, the Neo-Nazi heister/arsonist/rapist, first and last seen in The Rare Coin Score, while he was inside.  He later lets it slip that Otto told him a few stories, without any names attached, that he’s now thinking might have involved Parker.  Parker is surprised to learn Otto’s still locked up–hit a guard.  Well, that part doesn’t surprise him. Otto’s the kind of guy never learns from his mistakes.  Question he’s asking himself here; is Larry that kind of guy as well?

Anyway–the job.  It’s an interesting one.  Seems Elkins and Wiss were hitting this glorified hunting lodge (if you can call a huge ostentatious McMansion full of expensive stuff a lodge) way up in Montana, near the Canadian border.  It belongs to one of those dot.com billionaires, one Paxton Marino (the kind of guy Larry’s old partner was aspiring to become).  Elkins read about it in one of those architectural magazines that have big spreads on the homes of rich famous people (you have to wonder how much of the subscriber base for those publications is made up of burglars), and he noted with pleasure that it’s got a lot of solid gold fixtures.  Bathtubs, sinks, toilets, etc.  All of this out in the middle of nowhere.  Very Trump.  You know, some people never do quite grasp the concept of roughing it.

So the original concept was very simple–disable the alarms, break in, grab everything that’s made of precious metal, bring a forklift, load it all into two trunks, get the hell out.  But since they were basically ripping out the plumbing, they needed to turn off the water, so they went down to the basement, and Elkins noticed something a little off about the layout down there.  They realized there was a hidden vault (call Geraldo!).  What does a guy who has sold gold bathrooms feel like he needs to hide?

Art.  Really valuable really famous art.  Rembrandts, Titians, etc.  Art he’s got no business having.  Art that was stolen from museums and private collections–in fact, some of these paintings Elkins and Wiss stole themselves, for some art dealer who was obviously acting as a beard for Marino.  He’s a bigger thief than they ever were.  But before they can do anything about it, they realize that the vault had a separate alarm system they hadn’t disabled, and the cops are coming.  Their two partners got caught, but they managed to drive the other truck deep into the surrounding woods, on little back roads, over into Canada, and they finally had to get out and walk.  Froze their asses off, but they got away.

And now their partners are out, on really large bail, and basically no hope of getting off–if they skip bail, their families will be stuck with the tab.  The law is pushing them hard to divulge who they were working with, for a lighter sentence.   The way they see it, if Elkins and Wiss had left well enough alone, stuck to the job they’d agreed on, they wouldn’t be in this mess.  They want to run, create new identities, and they need money for that.  So either Elkins and Wiss heist the art and give them their share, or they spill everything they know.  The clock is ticking, and they need to do it soon, or go on the run themselves.  They have families too, established lives in the straight world, and would rather avoid that eventuality.  Plus, you know, they like money.

But here’s the catch–the original heist created what Larry calls a firebreak (don’t know how common that phrase was among techies back then, but it’s sure used a lot with regards to web security now).  A small fire that prevents a bigger one.  Because his security was circumvented–which could have led not only to loss of his property, but also the loss of his freedom, if it came out he had all this stolen art–Marino will have heavily upgraded his system.  Indeed, the only reason the law hasn’t already picked up Wiss and Elkins is that Marino didn’t want security cameras down there with those Old Masters he’s not supposed to have.  Larry figures that’s still probably the case, but they’ll have to feel their way in carefully.

So in spite of some lingering doubts about Mr. Lloyd’s reliability, Parker says he’s in, but he has to deal with some personal shit first.  Needless to say, it never occurs to him to ask for help with that, nor does it occur to Elkins and Wiss to offer any.  We’ve come a long way from the days of Handy McKay.  Every man for himself, when it’s not part of a heisting job.  And that’s very much the way Parker wants it.  But he will be requiring some assistance in this matter later in the story, all the same.

This Charov’s ID says he lives in Chicago.  Parker goes there to check out his apartment, which is full of small pistols carefully stashed in every room, in case somebody comes after him there (man after Parker’s own heart).  Charov’s family is in Russia, where he hails from–he’s been living far away from home, in order to support them, like many a hard-working immigrant.

Parker figures he was on retainer with some big outfit, and maybe doing freelance hits on the side.  Best way to find whoever wanted Parker dead is to find his employer–he finds an envelope addressed to Charov from a company called Cosmopolitan Beverages, in Bayonne, New Jersey.  Importers.  Not just of beverages, it seems.

He also finds a piece of paper with three names on it, two written in Cyrillic.  The third entry is the name Willis, written in English, so Charov could recognize it on the mailbox.  The name Claire uses, one of Parker’s discarded aliases that she adopted as a way of writing herself into his past.  The other names may prove to be of interest, so he’ll have to get them translated.  Perhaps most importantly, he plays back the messages on Charov’s answering machine, and the second is clearly a client, trying to find out if the job has been done–and the voice sounds familiar.  He can’t quite place it.

He calls Cosmopolitan Beverages, talks to their accountant, a Ms. Bursar (heh).  She says she never heard of any Viktor Charov, he certainly does not work as a purchasing agent for them,  though that seems to have been his work title of record.  Parker is sure the woman is telling the truth, as she knows it.  Charov had a no-show job there, to justify his presence in the U.S.  Like so many other things, killing people for money has been outsourced.  Actually, that started much earlier with contract killing than it did for many other walks of life.

For years the hit men came from Italy, know-nothing rural toughs called zips, who spoke no English, came in only to do the job and collect their low pay, and then flew back out again.  But that system soon began to break down.  Some of the zips refused to go home, some of them got caught and didn’t know how to take care of themselves inside the American system, some of them had loyalties in Europe that conflicted with their one-time-only employers in the United States.

It’s still better, all in all, to have a contract killer whose  home base is far away, in some other land.  But it pays to have somebody reliable, educated, useful over the long term.  Viktor Charov could come and go as he pleased, cloaked by his “job” at Cosmopolitan Beverages.  He could take on whatever private work he wanted, and from time to time the people who’d given him his cover would ask him to do a little something for them.

But the mob wasn’t behind the run at Parker.  That had been a civilian, that nervous voice on the answering machine in Chicago.  It was one of his independent contractor jobs that had run out Charov’s string.

Parker has to do a lot of multi-tasking in this one.  He flies up to Montana, taking a commuter flight from Great Falls up to Havre.  Beautiful wild country, hope to get there before I die.  He meets his partners, and they scope out the ‘lodge’ together.  As expected, the security has been ramped up, at great expense.  Larry Lloyd is absolutely essential to figuring out the technology, finding its weak points.  Without him, there’s no job at all.

They can’t even get near the big house without tripping an alarm, but they check out the house the security staff stay in, and Larry can go right up to it–no valuables inside, just one man on duty in the big house now, with Marino not currently resident.  He checks out the telecommunications hook-up.  He says he can get in–meaning he can hack into their system (the word ‘hack’ doesn’t appear in this book, which probably means Westlake didn’t like it being used in that context, or just wanted to avoid getting caught up in techno-jargon as much as possible).

Elkins wants to know if they can ‘get in’ in the older sense of the term.  You can’t cyber-heist a Rembrandt.  Some things still have to be done in three dimensions.  (Remember when sex was one of them?  Oh, never mind.)

At the present time, the plan is that they find a way past the security system in the big house, and Larry won’t even be in Montana during the heist–he can do his part of the job from Boston, now that he’s got the information he needed about their hook-up to the phone lines.  He can do his part with a few mouse clicks in Massachusetts.  Best laid schemes of mice and men……

Bad news on the home front.  Parker told Claire to check into a hotel in New York before he left.  She got word from the cleaning lady that the house in New Jersey was broken into.  The hit is still on.  He tells her he’ll meet her for dinner when he gets back–after he looks at the house (which he suspects has been booby-trapped).  And he asks her to find somebody who reads Cyrillic.

He comes at the house in a ‘borrowed’ rowboat he takes from another of the houses surrounding Colliver Pond–same way he did in Deadly Edge.  He enters through the screen porch in back.  He methodically searches the house, and finally finds the trip-wire at the front door–it triggers a tiny camera.  So the idea is that somebody is nearby, looking at a monitor, waiting for it to switch on, and will know if the person who entered the house is Parker or not.  Don’t want to blow up the cleaning lady.  That wouldn’t be professional.  He needs to find the house that monitor is in, but figures it can wait.  He heads for the city.

After a pleasurable reunion with Claire (I do sometimes lament the lack of explicit sex scenes in the Parker novels; you never have this problem with Max Allan Collins and Quarry–bit of a Puritan streak in Mr. Stark), she and Parker go to a furrier in Manhattan, run by a Russian woman of seemingly aristocratic lineage who Stark says looks like a pouter pigeon.  Stark remarks in passing that “Her manner was coolly highbred, as though the entire Bolshevik interlude had been no more than unpleasant weekend guests who’d overstayed their welcome.  The Russia she came from still had czars.”  Some of whom don’t like to wear shirts.

Claire can multi-task with the best of them as well, and found a translator for Parker who also has something of interest to her, namely very expensive fur coats–you get a little hint here of where all the money goes between heists.  Parker offers no objection–he enjoys Claire’s little fashion shows, and the only point in having money is to spend it.  Given his ascetic tastes, and his lack of interest in gambling, if he didn’t have Claire around, he wouldn’t have an excuse to work more than once a decade or so.  Those of us who love these books owe her a vote of thanks.

Madame Irina, whose accent sounds more French than Russian, is quite willing to translate Parker’s note, does not care to question the rather threadbare excuse for why he needs it translated.  She says the first name is Brock, with the initial P.  The second–well, Parker can easily guess the second now.  Damn.  Rosenstein and Guilden-Brock aren’t dead, after all.

At a restaurant, Parker fills in Claire (and late-arriving readers) about what happened in The Sour Lemon Score, how he left these two guys alive, and how it’s come back to bite them. They agree to go their separate ways until Parker’s cleaned up the mess.  Claire, slightly miffed she can’t go back to her house, perhaps a bit more bothered that she might have been collateral damage here (Parker actually apologizes to her, though the tone you hear in his voice doesn’t sound all that contrite), sucks it in like the trouper she is; says she’ll take her new coat and show it off in Paris.  That Montana heist better pay off good.  High maintenance, to say the least.  (But worth it.)

And now Parker is going to find out why all of this happened in the first place.  He gets a call from Elkins, who sounds tense.  They need to have another meet.  Larry had a security lapse–Parker doesn’t understand.  He asks if the law picked him up.  No, Parker, not that kind of security.

They meet in Great Barrington, Massachusetts.  Everybody looks very serious.  Larry looks downright redfaced.  He tries to explain it to Parker–in his old job, you backed everything up.  He created a file.  This file had contact information for the people he’s working with, or expects to be working with, on this job.  It had contact information for Parker he got from Elkins and Wiss.  Presumably under more than one name (there’s no way just ‘Parker’ would do it).  It had the address of the house in New Jersey.  It was on the internet. Somebody got into the file, and that’s how they found out where Parker lives, and that’s why Viktor Charov showed up there just as Elkins was calling to sound him out about the Montana job.  Brock hadn’t wasted any time.

Cloud computing was just starting to be a big thing about 2000, but it was available to true cognoscenti well before then.  I assume that’s what Larry is talking about here, but it’s not made clear.  I mean, if he just had a file stored in the hard drive of his computer, it’s not like somebody randomly trawling the web in search of a guy named Parker could just randomly break into it, right? Seriously, I don’t know.  The technical data is kept intentionally vague here, for the simple reason that Westlake doesn’t know very much about the tech, doesn’t want to do a ton of research into it, doesn’t want the story to get bogged down in a lot of cyber-jumbo.  That’s not what we read Westlake or Stark for.

But I imagine there will be those who will want to nitpick, and having done quite a lot of that myself regarding the last book, I’m in no position to throw stones–nor am I remotely equipped to nitpick myself.  It sounds possible, and Parker observes to himself (his own technical knowledge is fairly limited in this area) that Paul Brock had already been into recording technology when they first encountered each other.  He could have expanded into computers quite easily, and he never would have forgottten Parker’s unforgivable rape of his beautiful apartment, or Parker shooting both him and Rosenstein either.  Of course, he’d be well into his sixties now, if these characters were all aging normally, but clearly he and Rosenstein came through the time warp into the digital age as well.  They should have stayed back in the analog.

Larry’s tone is infinitely contrite.  He keeps talking about how stupid he is.  Parker doesn’t need to be told that.  Larry says something about how old habits die hard.  “Some things die easier,” Parker responds.  Not a warning.  Just an observation.

From this moment onwards, to the end of the book, Larry Lloyd is on double secret probation with Parker.  That button in Parker’s head that makes him kill whoever sets if off it hasn’t quite been pushed, but it’s been nudged, hard.    Larry compromised Parker’s home base–he’s erased the data now, nobody else can get it, but to Parker this just confirms Mr. Lloyd can’t be counted on, that he’s as much of a threat as any loose-lipped idiot gabbing in a bar about the cool heist he’s pulling, except he’s gabbing to anyone who has internet connectivity.  The law has no end of that.

First heist we ever saw Parker on, as soon as it was over, he was going to kill Mal Resnick, a partner who had not yet betrayed him (though it was coming), simply because Parker sensed there was something off about the guy, that he was a threat.  Larry’s good intentions don’t matter a damn here.  If Parker identifies Larry Lloyd as a threat to his life or freedom, he will start seeing Larry Lloyd as a dead man.  Period.

That’s the end of Part 1 (of 4, naturally), and that’s where we’re going to leave it for now.  I detect the outlines of a three-part review here.  Good thing I found a lot of cover images.  Like Backflash, it’s got an involved backstory.  Lots of loose ends to tie up.  Oooh, kinky.

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Filed under Donald Westlake novels, Parker Novels, Richard Stark

Review: The Sour Lemon Score, Part 2

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The whine was as sharp as vinegar now, the lines in her forehead looking like pencil strokes, crayon strokes, in the candlelight.  Then she leaned forward and said, “You’re really mad at him, aren’t you?”

“Yes.”

“You’d really beat him up, wouldn’t you?”

It was what she wanted to hear, so he said “Yes.”

“I tell you what,” she said, her voice dropping, becoming more confidential.  “If I hear from George at all, I’ll call you.  Okay?”

Parker considered the offer.  Was there anything else under it?  No, he didn’t think so.  He said “All right.  That’d be good.”

“And if I think of anybody else, anything else that might help you, I’ll call.  Like Officer Dumek’s first name or anything like that.”

“Good.  You can reach me at the Rilington Hotel, in midtown.  You know of it?”

“Rilington Hotel.  I can look it up on the phone book.,”

“Right.  I’m in and out of there, so if I’m not registered when you call, just tell them to hold the messages for me.”

She nodded.  “You’re from out of town, then, is that it?”

“I’m in New York a lot of the time,” he told her to keep her interest alive.

It did.  “Then maybe we can get to know each other a little,” she said.  “I could show you around the city some, if you don’t know it very well.”

“After I find George,” he said.

“A one-track mind, she said, smiling, “I told you that’s what you had.”

“That’s what I have.”

One thing you read about Parker quite often is that he’s a sociopath.   That word has gotten very popular in the last few decades, hasn’t it?   That and psychopath.  We throw those words around a lot.  We have a tendency to use them interchangeably.  They started out as terms to describe certain specific (if perhaps not perfectly understood) personality disorders, and they ended up as catch-all phrases to explain why some people don’t seem to have a conscience.   We’re all born without a conscience, you know.  Some stay that way.

Near the end of The Sopranos, Dr. Jennifer Melfi, who has been treating Tony Soprano for years, and has long understood that he’s a thug and a murderer (and has been strongly attracted to him for much of this time) concludes he’s a sociopath, that psychoanalysis can only make him a more successful mobster, and refuses to see him anymore.  But it seems to me that’s just her way of detaching herself from a dangerous situation–an excuse to separate herself from a professional relationship that has gotten overly personal.

And it’s a professional and personal failure on her part–not her decision, but the way she justifies it.  Understandable, but to me it seems like a final expression of David Chase’s skepticism (that he shared with Donald Westlake) regarding the psychiatric profession.  They have a tendency to rely too much on labels.

Tony Soprano isn’t a sociopath.   He’s just a selfish bastard.  Like most of us.  His methods of getting what he wants are more direct and brutal than ours, because of the culture he was raised in, the people he interacts with, but he’s not really so different from us–he’s got the same passions, the same hungers, the same questions over what it all means.   That’s why we liked watching him so much (well, I did).

And that’s why a lot of people threw a hissyfit when they didn’t get to see him die at the end.   They wanted that sense of vicarious fulfillment from watching him kill his enemies, break every commandment–but then they’d be exonerated from guilt, in the good old gangster movie fashion, by seeing him die a violent painful death.

David Chase wasn’t interested in giving us that escape route.   Neither was Richard Stark.   If you enjoy watching criminals do their thing, that’s on you–decide for yourself what it means.  Everybody dies in the end, no matter how good they are.  Francis of Assisi had one of the most horrible lingering deaths imaginable (arguably worse than Jesus’ death, though less dramatic)–Gandhi and Dr. King went down bloody.   Plenty of gangsters, mass murderers, and dictators die peacefully in their beds.  Death isn’t a punishment for evildoing, any more than taxes are.   It’s just the logical consequence of having been born.   Some people are luckier than others regarding the manner and timing of their deaths.  That’s all.

This book starts out, seemingly, as a revenge story–a thief betrays his partners, kills all but one of them, who then comes after him.   It then morphs into a looming confrontation between the survivor hunting down the betrayer, and a third man, who decides to also pursue the betrayer, for reasons of his own.

It seems these three men are much alike–criminals and murderers all, they lack any sense of guilt or remorse over their violent behavior.   But this is a study in contrast–they are actually quite different from each other.   One is merely greedy, shallow, and self-aborbed.  One is clearly a sadist, and perhaps a genuine psychopath–certainly a fascinating textbook case from a medical viewpoint.

And one is–something else.   Something inexplicable to modern psychiatry (as we saw in The Green Eagle Score).   Something that falls between the cracks in our understanding of ourselves, and of the world we live in.   Something that lives in those cracks, and watches us with cold observant eyes.

As we pick up where we left off last time, Parker is observing Joyce Langer, George Uhl’s old girlfriend, at a Mexican restaurant on the west side of Manhattan.  She convinced him to take her out to dinner, and he let himself be convinced, because he needs to learn all he can about George, and he’s got to use her neediness and her attraction to him to get her cooperation.  He’s working now, and with Claire when he isn’t, so he feels no attraction to her at all.  A few books back, Joyce might have gotten lucky.   But she’ll have to settle for being lucky compared to most of the other people Parker talks to in this book.

As Part 3 begins, we get the now-familiar round-robin approach–six chapters, each from the POV of a character other than Parker.  We start with George Uhl himself–seeing the events from the time of his betrayal through his eyes.   He’d pulled five jobs before the one he did with Parker, and every time he’d wanted to kill the others and take it all for himself.  But there’d always been some reason to restrain himself–fear of retribution from mutual acquaintances.  He finally got the perfect chance, and he took it–only to realize, too late, that he should have shot Parker first.

He holed up with an old high school chum in Philadelphia, name of Ed Saugherty.  Ed had gotten himself a nice career, married a pretty girl named Pam, had two kids, bought a house with a lawn in the ‘burbs–as straight a life as a man could lead, but Ed, just like a lot of us reading this book, had always been fascinated by people who lived on the other side of the law.  He had admired George, idolized him, lived vicariously through him (and probably would have taken just a bit of satisfaction from reading about George’s violent death in the papers, but it won’t work out that way).

They reconnected after high school, and George, feeling insecure at first over Ed’s obvious success, was surprised to see Ed still admired him–

When George realized Ed saw himself as a dull wage slave and George as a guy with an exciting life, there was nothing for it but to agree with Ed completely and start playing the role to the hilt.  That second meeting had been full of wild stories, a few of them true, a few of them invented, a few of them adapted from paperback novels, and there was no question but that Ed would pick up the tab again.  And though George had really been in tough money shape just then, the main reason he tapped Ed for a loan was because he understood Ed’s myth-comprehension of him demanded it.  Ed pressed the forty bucks on  him with a smile of absolute joy, saying, “No hurry about paying this back, George, no hurry about paying this back.”

Staying at the Saugherty house, George checks in regularly with his current girlfriend Barri Dane, who lives in DC, and is acting as his answering service.   First he hears that Matt Rosenstein wants to get in touch–he gets a bad feeling about that, but not as bad as the feeling he gets when he hears from Barri that Lew Pearson said Benny Weiss wants to talk to him–he shot Benny Weiss in the head just a few days earlier.

That’s what brings him to Pearson’s house, figuring he’s got to nail down that loose end–kill Pearson, so he can’t talk about George to anybody (George has a tendency to make murder the answer to every problem).  He shoots Pearson from inside the house, without even trying to find out what’s going on–then realizes, again too late, that Parker was there by the pool as well, and he’s missed his chance once more.

He’s a young guy, early 30’s, slender build, dark thinning hair–description is actually a bit reminiscent of Westlake himself at this point, but maybe that’s reading too much into it.   He seems to have a fair bit of luck with women of a certain type–when he was seeing Joyce, he was also getting involved with Barri Dane, who we meet in the next chapter.

Tall, blonde, curvy, self-assured, a dance/martial arts instructor, and basically a Jacqueline of All Trades, it’s a bit hard to figure what she sees in George, but it seems like she’s just one of those people who are drawn to edgy situations–and characters.  Also, I kind of think Westlake might have modeled her a bit after Barri Chase, Fred Astaire’s TV dance partner (and sometimes girlfriend) in the 50’s and 60’s.  But this Barri’s dance partners are not so elegant.  Not a top hat in the bunch.

Matt Rosenstein shows up on her doorstep, wanting to know where George is–she knows about Saugherty (Uhl’s worst mistake, other than not shooting Parker first).  She doesn’t want to tell him anything.  Rosenstein loves it when people, particularly of the female variety, don’t want to tell him stuff.   Whatever martial art Barri might have studied, it isn’t going to do her one bit of good now.  To a guy like Rosenstein, that’s just foreplay.

While Rosenstein is doing a job on Barri, Paul Brock is back in New York, looking at the job Parker did on his beautiful West Village apartment.   He’s in shock over it.   It’s a rape, a murder, a sacrilege.   He can’t understand it.  All he did was drug the guy so Matt could ask him a few questions, take everything in his pockets, and throw him in an alley covered in cheap wine.  That hardly justifies ruining a man’s home.  He tells Rosenstein he wants to kill Parker himself.  Although Brock can be dangerous when you underestimate him, Parker never underestimates anyone twice.  Brock should recognize his own limitations, and stay out of this mess.   But there are reasons why he can’t and won’t do that.

Back in Philly, Ed Saugherty is more and more aware of what a terrible mistake he made letting George Uhl stay in his guest bedroom.   His wife Pam is furious at him, seeing George for exactly what he is.  His three young children are confused and frightened by the whole situation.  But he can’t admit Pam was right, so he refuses to throw George out.

He’s ready to let go of his adolescent man-crush on George, to embrace his boring but safe middle class life at last, but then George, who had headed off to parts unknown, leaving a suitcase full of money with Ed (not that Ed opened it to look), calls him and says he might have some unpleasant visitors soon.  He should leave the suitcase with somebody he trusts.  He should not tell them anything.   He should not call the police, because they’d arrest him for aiding a fugitive.  It’s too late for him to back out now.   He’s not just watching the exciting real-life crime story now–he’s living it.   It’s not as much fun as he thought.

And now we’re inside Matt Rosenstein’s head–it’s not a pleasant place to be, but he seems to like it well enough.  He’s described as ‘a heavyset man of forty-two with irritable, intelligent eyes and a heavy, stupid jaw.’ In his late teens, he got paid thirty dollars to beat some guy up, and he decided that getting to hurt and intimidate people for money was what he wanted to do with his life.  He’s found a great many ways to satisfy that urge since then.

The sex urge is a bit more complicated–he’s been with a lot of women, willing and otherwise, but it never quite lived up to his expectations.  Then he met Paul Brock when he got hired to do a bit of insurance-related arson for a boutique Brock owned a stake in.  He found himself seducing Brock, who was easily seduced, and though he never thought of himself that way–well, he still doesn’t.

As far as Matt Rosenstein was concerned, though, he himself was still straight.  Brock was a faggot, and the relationship they had was sex-based, but that was just because living with a guy had business advantages and other advantages over living with a broad.  Matt was still straight, and when he got a shot at a woman he still took it and it still wasn’t very good, but he was still straight.

Like Uhl’s woman down in Washington this afternoon.  Now, she might have been okay.  She looked as thought she ought to be a real tiger in the rack, but of course by the time she opened her head about Georgy Porgy she wasn’t feeling too frisky anymore, and the way it turned out she just lay there and took it when he climbed aboard.  So it was fun, but not a hell of a lot of fun.  Anybody in his right mind would prefer a Paul Brock to something like that.  You wouldn’t have to be a fag.

One of the things that most distinguishes a true sociopath, or psychopath, aside from his general lack of feeling for other people, is his utter refusal to understand himself.  He simply will not ‘own’ his actions, accept their implications.  This is why psychiatrists often conclude that treating sociopaths with ‘the talking cure’ is a waste of time–they aren’t interested in learning who they are, what makes them tick.   They don’t want to know. They just learn how to put up a better front.  They lie to themselves as much as to everyone else.  The capacity for self-knowledge simply isn’t there.   To Donald E. Westlake, there can be no more contemptible creature.

To me, the interesting thing about this little inner monologue of Rosenstein’s is that what’s most wrong with him (other than his being a rotten sadistic bastard, hardly an uncommon ailment) is not that he’s gay, but that he refuses to know that he’s gay.  He found out by accident who he was, the kind of person he was supposed to be with, but he keeps trying to prove he’s ‘a real man’–to live up to an image he has of what somebody like him is supposed to be.  He’d be a crook and a low-life either way, but he’d at least be himself.

If Uhl makes murder the answer to every problem, Rosenstein makes pain his.   His real high isn’t sex, but hurting people.  For any reason.  Or none.  To have power over them.  To feel superior to them.  To paraphrase Richard Pryor’s take on some guys he talked to when visiting a penitentiary, he’ll fuck you just to see that look on your face.   Charming fellow, eh?  I told you Otto Mainzer wasn’t the worst guy we’d ever meet in these books.

Back in New York, that other charming fellow, George Uhl, knowing he’s no longer safe at the Saugherty house, has no choice but to crash with Joyce, who he hasn’t seen in about a year, so he figures nobody will look for him there.  He talks his way through the door and into her bed (this is the only sex scene in the book), and she’s happy enough to have him there–until she realizes, once again, that he doesn’t care about anybody but himself.  Her ingrained sense of perpetual aggrievement takes hold, and as George sleeps the smug sleep of the self-satisfied, she leaves a message for Parker at the Rilington.  And then goes out.

Parker continues to rack up the miles–he’s been running down every lead he’s got on George, and they’ve all turned out to be dead ends.  He got to Barri’s apartment in DC, only to find Rosenstein had beaten him there, and very nearly beaten her to death.  The Pontiac he’s driving has a tendency to drift to the left, and can’t be much fun to drive, but of course it’s not about fun.   He’s got to find Uhl–to get his money–to make Uhl stop breathing. Then the storm inside him, created by Uhl’s treachery, will quiet down.  Then he can go back to New Orleans and be with Claire.

He calls in to get his messages from the Rilington–I’ll say again that these stories would make no sense in the era of cellphones and email–and finally, his luck changes.   And George Uhl’s runs out.

He wakes George none too gently, with a poke in the stomach from one of his two Smith & Wesson Terriers (see Part 1).  George is scared (and angry at Joyce, who he figures out right away must have ratted him out), but figures he can talk his way out of it somehow–Parker isn’t interested in talking–he swings from the floor, and a huge gnarly fist crashes into Uhl’s jaw, leaving him sprawled unconscious on the bed.

Parker still has the drug Rosenstein used on him to make him answer questions–using a combination of guesswork and past observation, he doses George with it, and eventually learns about Saugherty.  And that he’s got to drive to Philadelphia now–great.   Who wouldn’t want to be there?

Joyce runs back in–she’s belatedly repented of telling Parker where George is, and has come back to warn him–Parker ends up knocking her out too, just to shut her up.   He ties her to the sofa, and as he leaves, leading the drugged Uhl along like a compliant sleepwalker, she looks at him with solemn terrified eyes.   He leaves her alive–why not?  She doesn’t know a thing–not even who she is.

And now comes a moment readers of these books have been puzzling over since 1969.   Parker has all he’s ever going to get out of Uhl.   He has no more use for him.  No more reason to keep him alive, and we know that when somebody working with Parker betrays him, tries to kill him, takes money Parker sees as his, Parker needs to make that person dead.  We’ve known that since the very first book–that’s really how we came to know Parker, from watching him hunt down Mal Resnick, and seeing him squeeze the life out of Mal with his big veiny hands, like he was snuffing out a candle, and with about as much inner reflection involved.

Parker takes Uhl, still deep under the influence of the truth drug, out to the nearby New Jersey marshlands, to a spot his body won’t be found for quite a long time.  He points the gun at his prostrate form.  And he can’t pull the trigger. Mercy?  Compassion?   Guilt?  Conscience?   None of these things.   Parker himself can’t quite explain it–maybe no one could–but Stark gets us as close as possible to the truth–

It was stupid.  There was no sense in it, and things without sense in them irritated him.  Uhl was too docile, too easy.  Somehow he was too much like a trusting child.  Today or tomorrow he would wake up with a blinding headache and he would be again the guy who had twice tried to kill Parker, who had turned a very sweet job sour, who had killed his partners and stolen money that belonged to Parker, who had caused him trouble and discomfort of all kinds for five days in a row.  That’s who he’d been yesterday and that’s who he’d be tomorrow, and Parker wouldn’t think twice about exing that George Uhl out of the human race.  But that wasn’t who George Uhl was today.  Today he was a docile child, and with angry irritation, Parker realized that today he wasn’t going to kill George Uhl.

But neither was he going to leave Uhl capable of getting back into the game. Nothing could make him quite that stupid.  He put his pistol away again and bent over Uhl and broke three bones, all fairly important.  Uhl groaned once and frowned, but that was all.

When you’re attacked by a wild predator–not because it’s hungry, but because you’ve agitated it in some way, triggered the fight or flight response–and you can’t get away, or effectively fight back–what are you supposed to do?

Play dead.   Go limp.   Curl into a ball, cover your eyes, and hope the beast’s aggressive instincts will calm down–that it will be confused by your passivity, and will simply leave you there on the ground.  No animal other than man kills without provocation or a sound practical reason.  There are no Matt Rosensteins in the animal world, no George Uhls.  They do what they have to in order to survive.  Make them believe your death is not necessary for their survival, and they will leave you alone.

On a conscious level, Parker knows leaving Uhl alive is a bad idea.   Uhl will come after him again, someday (three books from now, to be specific).  If he doesn’t deal with him now, he’ll have to later on, and it might not go his way next time.  Consciously, he knows all this.  But there’s nothing he can do about it.  His conscious mind isn’t what pulled him into this situation.  If he was simply doing what made sense, he’d have gone back to Claire and waited for the next job.  It wasn’t that much money.  Not worth risking all he has to regain, that’s for sure.

He could always put feelers out, look for an easy shot at George later on, when George’s guard was down, if all he wanted was vengeance.   What he wanted was to calm the storm–but George’s strange comatose state of mind has done that already.  The feelings, the instinctive drives that make Parker kill have gone away–for now.  And without those drives impelling him, he can’t kill anyone.

Call him a wolf in the forest, a tiger in the jungle, a lion on the savannah, a bear on the tundra, a killer whale swimming endlessly through the sea of hardboiled crime fiction–whatever he is, he’s not like us.   He doesn’t kill when he doesn’t need to kill.   His conscious mind is strong enough to let him incapacitate Uhl for the near future–but it’s the beast within that’s really calling the shots here, at least when he’s working.  And the beast within isn’t hungry, or scared, or angry–so it leaves.  To seek its proper prey.  The money.  No time to wait for George to snap out of it.  Another hunter is on the trail.

Interestingly, Parker (or is it Stark interpreting for Parker?) thinks earlier in the book that by trying to get to Uhl through Rosenstein, ‘he’d succeeded only in setting another wolf on the scent.’  He seems to perceive other heisters as beasts of prey like himself, but if so, that’s a misperception on his part, as we can see when we look into their minds, and find the same delusions and pretensions that we see in our own minds (if we’re honest with ourselves). Parker knows himself better than any human ever could, but he doesn’t know everything.

He knows how to drive the 90 miles to Philadelphia (he must know parts of the route by heart at this point), and his seemingly endless commute up and down the eastern seaboard is nearly at an end now. He does a drive-by past the Saugherty home, and realizes Rosenstein and Brock are in there.

We’ve already seen in the Rosenstein POV chapter how he and Brock broke in there, and Rosenstein immediately put the question to Ed about where the money was. Ed has already left it with a friend. He tries to follow Uhl’s advice to not tell them anything at all–to convincingly feign innocence–that might have worked, except Ed has no idea how to lie convincingly. He changes his story in the middle of telling it, and Rosenstein knows he’s got the goods.  Or knows who does.

But instead of just torturing Ed to get the information–or threatening his family–or using his drug, which Parker has noticed he doesn’t seem to like using when there’s a woman in the picture–Rosenstein just says he’s going to take Pam into the bedroom until Ed feels like talking. Brock is pained and mortified, as usual (He’s seen this movie before, but what can he do? Poor schmuck’s in love.) Ed, who had not been terribly happy in his marriage to Pam, and has never shown any propensity for violence, suddenly finds the courage to fight for her–but this isn’t a Westlake novel.  It’s a Stark.  Rosenstein, almost as happy hurting men as women, just holds him down and hits him. A bit too hard, a bit too often. Whoops. There goes the last link to the money.

Parker, talking to Rosenstein from a nearby phone booth, says he’ll come in and talk–open the garage door for him. They can work something out. He knows they have no more intention of working anything out than he does. They’re planning an ambush, but they don’t realize they’re dealing with the ultimate ambush predator. He comes in fast and hard with the Pontiac, guns blazing–the fight lasts maybe a minute. And when it’s over, Rosenstein and Brock-en-stern are–well, not dead. But they might have been better off that way.

Parker got Rosenstein in the spinal column with one of his Terriers. He’s crippled, seemingly dying. He spits hatred at Parker–says he just got lucky. Parker’s only retort is to knock Rosenstein out with a pistol butt. He has no time to waste on this–thing.

Brock he has a little more time for–he finds him lying at the bottom of the basement stairs he fell down when Parker shot him, broken in a number of places. And he’s still whining about the damn apartment! But Parker gets him to focus–to explain what happened. And he finds out the money is gone. No way to know who has it. No way to get it back. So it doesn’t exist anymore, as far as he’s concerned. The hunting impulse switches itself off. He’s done.

He starts to leave–wait a minute–Brock and Rosenstein are still alive–neither is in some childlike narcoleptic pharmaceutically-induced state. Both tried to get his money–they drugged him, robbed him, left him in an alleyway, and were going to try and kill him just now. Has Parker totally lost his mind–or his edge?

Not a bit of it. Like I said–he’s done. He was never after Rosenstein and Brock–it was all about getting Uhl and the money. If they had it, and wanted to fight him over it, sure–he’d kill them both, happily. But he never had a working arrangement with them. They had every right to try and get the money. The drugging was unpleasant, but not a major grievance–he settled that score by trashing the apartment and shooting both of them. Madge had it right–Parker and Rosenstein have different outlooks. But honestly, she could have said that about Parker and anybody else on the planet.

He figures the cops are coming–he’s got to get out of there fast, and there’s already been too many shots fired in a quiet neighborhood. He also figures that Pam Saugherty, who he found tied naked to a bed, covered with bruises, in a rather disturbed state of mind, can deal with these two cripples better than he ever could. He can just go upstairs, untie her, and leave–it’s up to her what happens next–it’s her beef. Not his. Not anymore.

Brock can’t understand it–he asks if Parker is leaving them to the law. “I’m doing better than that,” Parker told him. “I’m going to leave you to Saugherty’s wife.” And a fair few books from now, in a time strangely different and far removed from the one he’s currently living in, he’ll have reason to question the wisdom of that decision. But it isn’t a decision at all. It’s just Parker being Parker. If he were easy to understand, we wouldn’t still be reading these books, all these years later. Still trying to figure him out. And probably never succeeding.

And thus ends the paperback era of Parker. Another thing coming to an end, as Parker leaves Gold Medal for good, is the novels being reprinted in a bizarre men’s magazine, with lurid artwork, and laughably stupid new titles. fmo_69_jul_2

That’s probably the least embarrassing retitle of the bunch, and not bad artwork at all. But it’s a shame Robert E. McGinnis never did any more cover art for Parker–he really did seem to get the character in a way none of the others ever did. I said last week that his cover for this book depicted Parker and Joyce Langer, but it’s hard to be sure–is it actually Pam Saugherty? She’s not naked on the cover, but that’s easily enough explained. There’s several traumatized tied-up women in this one. But I still think it’s Joyce.  Anyway, if you want to compare and contrast the various covers, follow this link. Or this one.

I don’t generally love the cover art for the University of Chicago reprints, but I have to give a shout-out to this one, because it correctly identifies the hero of the piece–the long-suffering green Pontiac. Which can finally take a well-deserved rest, once Parker gets back to Claire in New Orleans.

And after I take my own well-deserved rest, I’ll come back with a very different take on murder and mayhem–the next of the Westlake ‘nephew’ books, and while I wouldn’t say it’s the best of the bunch, it got a fantastic paperback cover–eventually. Almost four decades after it was first published in hardcover, with maybe the worst cover art Westlake ever got for any book–and that’s a competitive category.  Remind me again why hardcovers are more prestigious?

And this book got reprinted in a men’s magazine too–THE men’s magazine, in fact. There must have been times when Westlake pondered the irony that after writing near-porn for years, he got into actual porn magazines with stories where the hero doesn’t even have sex. People are funny, you ever notice that?  Westlake did. See you next year.

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Filed under Donald Westlake novels, Parker Novels

Review: The Sour Lemon Score

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This is a pivotal moment in the Parker saga for a number of reasons.   First of all, it’s the last of the four Parker novels published by Gold Medal–the last to feature cover art by Robert E. McGinnis, as well.  Westlake’s four book (and two reprint) association with this iconic Fawcett imprint, whose 50’s and early 60’s output had been so influential for him, had turned out to be problematic from the start.  The golden age of the paperback original crime novel was over before he got there.

And with this book, Parker’s days of paperback first editions are over as well, after a dozen memorable entries.   The remaining twelve would all be hardcovers. The books would remain fascinating, but would rarely be as much fun to look at from now on.

We’re exactly midway through the series (unless you count the four Grofields), and nearly everything we associate with the character has been established (still waiting for a few key characters and a certain house in New Jersey), but he’s as much of a stranger to us as ever.   The one thing we know for sure about Parker is that he will always 1)Steal a lot of money and get to keep a big chunk of it, 2)Kill anybody who tries to take that money away from him, and 3)Get it on with a great-looking chick at some point in the narrative.

And in this book, he gets none of that.   No sex, no killing, no money.  And yet, this is one of the better-regarded books in the series, certainly much better liked than The Black Ice Score, where Parker gets cash and vengeance, and beds the lovely Claire at various points in the story (Claire is only referred to in absentia in this book).

The basic structure of the novel is nearly identical to most of the previous ones, with (as many have noted) one key difference–no extended flashback to tell us what Parker was doing before he shows up at the start of Part 4–the trademark Stark Rewind is just barely present here.  It’s a fairly linear narrative, mainly from Parker’s perspective, but as typically happens, Part 3 is composed of chapters from a variety of other POV’s, before we return to Parker in Part 4 (the four parts are labeled One…, Two…, Three…, and Four…, like Stark is counting them off).

Quite a few times before we’ve seen Westlake pushing Parker out of his comfort zone, but here it seems like he’s trying to do the same for us.   As the tagline runs, Parker steals–Parker kills–it’s a living–but not this time.  This is the beginning of a long losing streak for the character who has seemed so invincible up to this point.  His formidable skills, his oddly lupine mindset, and his strange luck will see to it that he stays in the fight, but it’s never going to be like it was before.  So it’s a transitional book, but I often think they’re all transitional, to some extent. With Parker, you can never step twice into the same river, to repurpose Heraclitus.   We the readers have to adapt to changing circumstances, just as he does.

The story begins with a pretty run-of-the-mill bank robbery.  Parker is part of a four man string, comprised of himself, the plump good-natured Benny  Weiss, the lucky Phil Andrews (never been arrested, never had a warrant out on him), and a young newcomer named George Uhl, who is driving the getaway car, and who Parker is getting weird vibes from.  He figures it’s because Uhl is scared, and he wants to make sure this guy won’t drive off and leave them stranded in mid-robbery.  Uhl says angrily that he drove for Matt Rosenstein once–Parker has no idea who that  is.

The robbery goes off like clockwork–George doesn’t panic, though he goes right on being jumpy and nervous–and they head for an abandoned farm house to wait out the road blocks, and divide the loot–and turns out they hit the bank on the wrong day–only thirty-three thousand, a thousand of which is brand-new singles and fives they’ll have to leave behind.  Just 8k a man.  Hardly worth the weeks of preparation.   And that’s the good news.  The bad news is that George Uhl was nervous and jumpy because he planned to kill them all from the start.

He takes out Benny first, shooting him in the head–then Phil goes for his gun (a bit too slow), while Parker goes through the window, knowing the man with the gun in his hand always has the advantage.  Unfortunately, his own gun falls from its holster when he makes the plunge, and he can’t go back to get it.  He makes it to the surrounding woods, bullets whistling past his ear, and then he hears George taunting him over the lost gun.

But he isn’t going to follow Parker in there–he’s not that dumb.  He torches the farm house and the barn the cars were parked in, and drives off in the remaining car–with the money.  Parker’s money.   So we know now, sooner or later, George Uhl is a dead man.  But this time it’s going to be quite a bit later.

Stranded a few miles from a small town whose bank he just robbed, Parker has no choice but to walk back to that town and steal a car from a gas station.  What follows is one of the most oddly compelling interludes in the entire series.  He gets himself about five hundred miles from the scene of the crime, ditches the car, takes a bus to Cleveland, checks into a hotel, and wires Claire to send him some money.   He then visits a shabby antique store a few blocks away, that Grofield apparently recommended to him once.  He needs to re-equip himself.   He wants two handguns, preferably of the same type.

The former proprietor, Mr. Dempsey, has died, leaving an elderly woman (Wife?  Sister?  We never even learn her name.) in possession of the rather dubious establishment–after asking Parker a few wary questions, she realizes he’s there to buy guns–not the antique variety.  She remembers Grofield–charming young man–those of us who have been reading up to this point can imagine how he would have chatted the lady up, joking with her, his usual pleasant self.  Parker is his usual unpleasant self, all business, no small talk, but that’s okay–she just needs the money.  The small talk isn’t necessary.

He went with her down the narrow aisle between the seatless chairs, the cracked vases, the chipped enamel basins, the scarred chifferobes. Everywhere there was frayed cloth, cracked leather, sagging upholstery, chipped veneer, and an overall aura of dust and disuse and tired old age.

The doorway at the back was low enough so Parker had to duck his head.  The old woman led him through a narrow kitchen containing equipment almost as old and tired-looking as the wares in the shop, and then through another low door and down a flight of stairs into a low-ceilinged basement full of more ancient furniture.  It was impossible to see how half of it had been maneuvered down the narrow stairs, or why anyone had bothered.

A era coming to its end–in fact, I think this may be the last such episode in the Parker books, where he visits some dingy shop or office fronting for an illegal gun sales racket–but the guns themselves are fine for his purposes.   Two Smith & Wesson Terriers–five shot snub-nosed revolvers that fire .32 caliber rounds.  We’ve seen this gun before–in all, I believe it figures in maybe seven of the novels–and maybe it’s worth taking a look at it now.

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You might say it’s Parker’s go-to weapon (though he never specifically asks for it)–easily concealed, reliable in a pinch, enough stopping power to get the job done at close range.   A cop’s weapon, repurposed for a robber. And with a memorable name.

Westlake (whose experience with guns was probably limited to his time in the Air Force) used to joke that half his mail was gun buffs correcting firearms-related mistakes he’d made, and he might have taken some flack from them about this particular weapon.   See, most of the Terriers you’d find now fire the much more powerful .38 caliber ammo.  The .38 version of the Terrier is (confusingly) designated Model 32, so did Westlake assume they fired the smaller round?   It would seem that in spite of his often commented upon dislike for research, he got this one right.

According to this source, many Terriers were chambered for .32 ammo.  They were carried by thousands of police officers, who purchased them directly, as opposed to having them issued by their employers–the smaller less powerful round would have made them lighter and easier to fire.  After 1967, the .32 Terrier was no longer used by police, and one can imagine many officers disposing of them around then, or years earlier–since they were personal property, they wouldn’t have been handed in–they might well have ended up in the back rooms of little hobby and antique shops, or in the offices of disreputable private detectives who dealt with both sides of the law.  A gun that fell between the cracks, in a manner of speaking.  Like Parker himself.

Parker pays the lady a hundred bucks for the two Terriers–she’s surprised he doesn’t haggle.   He’s got no time for that.  He asks her where he can get a ‘mace’–a used car with seemingly legal registration that he can drive from state to state without worrying too much about getting stopped.  She knows a dealer who can supply one. He gets a two year old green Pontiac, that runs fine, but has a bit of a steering problem–probably a lot like this–

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(I wouldn’t bother showing the car, except he’s going to be spending most of the rest of the book driving it back and forth across much of the eastern seaboard, and it figures very strongly in the final chapter, as do those twin Terriers.)

He’s almost done now.  He wires Claire for more money.  He gets a suitcase and some things to put in it.  He doesn’t bother to go back and pay his hotel bill.  His one track mind had to focus first on evading the police–then on obtaining cash and equipment.   Now all he’s going to think about is George Uhl.

As Part Two opens, we find him holed up at the Green Glen Motel, being forced to chat with its proprietor Madge, who has already appeared in The Outfit and The Seventh.  This is her last appearance in the series, and the most interesting, so let’s take a closer look at her as well.

She was medium height and thin as an antenna, with sharp elbows and a shriveled throat.  Her hair was white and coarse and cut very short in the Italian style worn by women forty years her junior.  She was wearing dark green stretch pants tonight and a sleeveless high-neck top of green and white and amber stripes and green slip-on shoes.  Great golden hoop earrings hung from her ears.  She kept her eyebrows plucked and redrawn in sardonic curving lines.  Her fingernails were always long and curved and covered in blood-red polish, but she wore no lipstick, so that her mouth was one more thin pale line in a heavily lined face.

If she’d had less toughness and assurance, the effect would have been pretty bad, particularly with the gleaming white false teeth she flashed every time she opened her mouth, but somehow or other she had the style to get away with it.  The young clothes weren’t being worn by an old body but by a young spirit.  In some incomprehensible way, Madge had stopped getting older about 1920.

Madge loves to gossip with her heister clientele, share information, and she’s got a lot of information to share. Parker is calling all his contacts around the country to find out where he can find Uhl–nobody seems to know him, including Madge. But she’s met this Matt Rosenstein Uhl mentioned–he’s come by the Green Glen a few times. She’s not surprised he and Parker haven’t crossed paths before–even though Rosenstein pulls the occasional heist (along with just about every other felony in the book), he’s not like Parker–she calls him a ‘scavenger bird’.   She says he and Parker have different outlooks.  What she means by that is something we’ll learn as we go along.

Handy McKay, Parker’s former partner and current contact, calls in–he’s found out that Rosenstein’s contact is a guy named Paul Brock, who has a record store in Greenwich Village.  Parker tells him Madge has twenty-two hundred dollars for him–his split of the money from the jewels they took out of Bronson’s safe at the end of The Outfit.  They’d both forgotten about that, but Madge remembered–it’s been five years since they dropped by and left the jewels with her.  Meaning that it’s about 1968 now–the year Westlake would have written this book.

We’ve enjoyed Parker’s talk with Madge, and maybe on some level he has too, but he’s got all the information he needs now, so he politely (for him) kicks her out, and asks for a wake-up call the next morning.  “That’s always been your big failing, Parker” she jokes on her way out.  “You talk too much.”  And that’s the last we see of Madge.  Another era coming to an end–Parker may stay the same, but the world around him is changing.

And nowhere is it changing faster than Greenwich Village, where Parker enters Paul Brock’s record shop, filled with the rock music of that era–music Westlake himself doesn’t much care for–he was a jazz guy all his life. Parker, of course, is indifferent to all music, but he’s very interested in talking to Paul Brock.   He has to intimidate the store clerk a bit, but he gets Brock on the phone, and gets the address of Brock’s apartment at 8 Downing Street, an address I’m not convinced actually exists (next time I’m down there I’ll go look), but there’s a 10 Downing Street, which my British readers might be interested to know is right by Sir Winston Churchill Square, and no that’s not a coincidence.  It’s just retroactive Anglophilia.

Parker is surprised at how lavishly decorated Brock’s apartment is.  It makes him uneasy, somehow, as does Brock himself, who is quite clearly gay, and not the least bit butch.   Parker offers to run down a list of people he’s worked with, until Brock recognizes a name–he says there’s no need, he can clearly see Parker is in the same general line of work as Rosenstein (who he calls Matt).

Paul Brock is the first unequivocally gay character of any significance in the Parker novels, and for that matter in any novel Westlake wrote under his name or Stark’s (Tucker Coe will be trumping both of them in this department very soon).   Westlake, like nearly all ‘straight’ men of his era, was homophobic–more than some, less than others.  He was also meeting openly gay people on a daily basis during his time living in the Village. And as a guy raised Irish Catholic in upstate New York in the first half of the 20th century, he was finding them very interesting–and troubling–he’s got issues to work out here.  Well, don’t we all?

Brock is also one of the very few people we meet in these books who ever catch Parker off guard (Parker occasionally shows a tendency to underestimate certain types of men he perceives as weak in some way)–while Parker waits around for Rosenstein to show up, he has some expresso and chocolate cookies Brock offered him before leaving the room, and too late realizes that Brock has drugged him.  He just barely manages to conceal his guns under the sofa cushions before he collapses on the floor.

The next thing he knows, he’s being interrogated–and is atypically cooperative, because he’s been injected with a ‘truth drug’. Someone he later realizes is Rosenstein himself is asking him what he’s there for–finds out about the heist, the 33k (actually 32k, but it doesn’t matter), Uhl’s betrayal, and that Parker isn’t there after Rosenstein.   Never having seen Parker in his normal waking state, Rosenstein apparently decides he’s no threat, and not worth the trouble of disposing of a body–Rosenstein wants to get after Uhl as soon as possible.  He’s made a bad mistake, but how is he to know that?

So Parker wakes up in the proverbial alleyway, doused with cheap wine, his head feeling like it’s going to split wide open.   He’s not happy about any of this.   But he’s still focused on finding Uhl and the money.   What he told Rosenstein remains true–he’s not out to kill the guy.  They didn’t have a working arrangement–there was no double-cross here.  If Rosenstein got his money, then he might have to kill him to get it back.  But as of now, his one-track mind is still thinking about Uhl and nothing else.

Except he still has to recover from the effects of the drug–they took his cash.  He has to walk way uptown to his hotel, talk his way past the snooty desk clerk, and sleep it off.  He tells the clerk he was mugged and rolled.   It’s not one of the prouder moments of his career to date.

It is, however, clearly influenced by sequences in earlier crime novels and films.   The one that comes to mind most prominently is Farewell My Lovely–Philip Marlowe is shot up with an unidentified drug, and wakes up in a sanitarium.  Westlake was never Raymond Chandler’s biggest fan–he might, however, have felt more positively about Murder, My Sweet, Dick Powell’s innovative film adaptation of that novel, which identifies the drug in question as heroin, and rather memorably portrays Marlowe’s mental state under its influence.   Another film Westlake certainly would have seen would be Robert Aldrich’s Mike Hammer send-up, Kiss Me Deadly, where Hammer is tied to a bed and drugged with truth serum.

In any event, there must have been plenty of other druggings in this genre (perhaps some of you reading this can recall a few?), and the point is not homage but analysis–how will Parker react to this?   He reacts by not reacting.  He just recovers and gets back to work.   Only now he’s learned something–drugs can be a useful way of getting information.

So he makes his way back to Brock’s apartment, finding it empty, and utterly trashes the place, hoping to find contact information for Uhl.  He finds his guns, quite a bit of money, the drug they used on him, and takes them all with him.  Nothing on Uhl.   He’ll have to find some other way to get to him.   Benny Weiss was the one who brought Uhl into the job.  Weiss had a wife.  Now a widow.  He’ll go talk to her.

Grace Weiss has a nice little house in the suburbs, and has become a surrogate grandmother to the children there, who are playing on her porch when Parker arrives.   Nobody there but her knows how her husband makes his living (it’s implied she was ‘on the bend’ herself for a while).  Benny would go off on a job, and she’d see him when he got back.  Only this time she sees Parker.  She knows what that means.  Another world coming to an end.  Another old woman left to her own devices.

She remembers Uhl.  He came to the house a few times.  She has two possible contacts for him.  She wants to know why Parker needs that information.  Parker tells her Uhl killed Benny.  Revenge isn’t her thing, and she says it’s not Parker’s either (perceptive).  She wants a cut of the money–Parker says Benny’s share died with him.  But he’ll give her two thousand dollars (most of what he took from Brock’s apartment) if she gives him the contact info–or she can get a cut of what he takes from Uhl–if he gets anything at all.  It never occurs to him to just force the information out of her (as it surely would to Rosenstein).

She hates Parker a bit for being part of the cold mercenary world that killed her husband–but she knows when he makes a deal, he sticks to it.   She also knows he might not get the money from Uhl–or be killed trying to get it.   She takes the two thousand.  Bird in the hand.  Benny was insured, but his body burned in the house.  She can’t prove he’s dead (not without revealing what he did when he was alive).   She’ll have to wait seven years for an ‘Enoch Arden’ judgment–so she lives in one of those states where after a given period of time, a missing person can be declared dead for insurance and remarriage purposes–she’s only thinking about the former.   And not about Tennyson at all.

There’s an interesting moment in this chapter where Stark worms his way into Parker’s head, as he observes the way Grace reacts to his news–

She sagged forward for a second, her hands bracing her against the counter. He watched her, knowing she was trying to be stoic and matter-of-fact as she could, knowing she would hate him to do anything to help her unless she was actually fainting or otherwise breaking down, and knowing that she had to have rehearsed this moment for years, ever since the first time Benny had gone away for a month on a job.  Like Claire, Parker’s own woman. Rehearsing the way she would handle it when she got the news.  If she got the news.  When she got the news.

It’s a moment that wouldn’t be possible if Claire wasn’t part of Parker’s life now. His death wouldn’t only impact him now.  He understands this, but there’s nothing he can do about it.  So no point dwelling on it.   He gives her the money.  She gives him the names.   He thanks her.  She tells him she did it for the money.  She didn’t need to tell him that.  Of course, he didn’t need to thank her, either.

It’s a pity Parker doesn’t get paid by the mile, because he’s racking up a whole lot of them.  He heads down to Virginia to talk to Lewis Pearson, a guy Benny knew who introduced him to George–Grace called him from the house to try and save Parker the drive–told him Benny wanted to get in touch–but he just told Grace Benny shouldn’t work with Uhl (bit late now).   Parker figures he can be more persuasive.  Pearson has a nice house and a pool, a bikini-clad wife slathered with suntan oil, and a bone to pick with George Uhl (who we gather put the moves on Pearson’s wife).  But then, as he talks to Parker by the pool, he gets something else–a bullet hole in his head.

Parker dives for cover, and realizes in an instant that Uhl must have heard from Pearson about the call from Grace–she said Benny wanted to get in touch with George.  Parker is just lucky Pearson was the more visible target.   But Uhl got away again.  Now Parker’s got no choice but to try the other contact–an old girlfriend of Uhl’s.   In New York.   He’s got to drive back there.  Again.  You see what I mean about the Pontiac being an important player in this story.

Joyce Langer lives on West 87th Street, between Amsterdam and Columbus–that’s a yuppie nabe nowadays, very pricey and upscale–if you have to ask what it costs to live there, you probably can’t afford it.  But back then, it was quite cheap, on the seedy side, and just a bit dangerous.

Joyce is no yuppie–she’s a pretty young woman with long chestnut hair who would be quite attractive if she wasn’t, as Parker notes right away, an injustice collector, a whiner, a stubborn ineffectual hater.  Her description and general manner remind me of Ellen Fusco from The Green Eagle Score, but Joyce has never been married, has no kid to anchor her.  She doesn’t even seem to have a job at the moment.  By the way, that’s her tied up on the McGinnis cover for the Gold Medal edition, up top.  You could call that a spoiler, but I prefer to think of it as foreshadowing.

And on the whole, I’d prefer to call this Part 1, and cover the second half in Part 2, which may or may not appear before 2014 meets the same fate as half the characters in this book.  So, I dunno, Merry Christmas.   (And would you believe I typed the last of this while listening to Pope Francis on the television at my parents’ house?  Well, you probably would, yeah).

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Filed under Donald Westlake novels, Parker Novels