Tag Archives: W.R. Burnett

Review: Drowned Hopes, Third Down

We need another plan,” May told them.  “We need some other way to get to that money that isn’t dynamite and that Tom Jimson will go along with.  But John won’t even talk about it, and he absolutely won’t think about it.  So what I was hoping from this meeting, I was hoping one of us would come up with something I could tell Tom, something that would at least slow him down, some kind of plan, or even an idea for a plan.  Something.”

There was a little uncomfortable silence in the cab, punctuated by Mom’s maledictions against the world of drivers and pedestrians and New York City traffic conditions generally.  At last Tiny spread his catcher’s-mitt hands and said, “May that ain’t my field.  I pick up heavy things, I move them, I put them down, that’s what I do.  Sometimes I persuade people to change their minds about certain things.  I’m a specialist, May, and that’s my specialty.”

Stan said “I’m a driver.  I’m the best in the business–”

“He is,” his Mom said, as she swerved around a wallowing stretch limo driven by a Middle Eastern refugee who’d cleared Customs & Immigration earlier that morning.  “I’m his mother, but I’ve got to admit it, my boy Stan is a good driver.”

“The best,” Stan corrected.  “But, May, I don’t do plans.  Getaways I can do.  Vehicles I can drive; there isn’t a thing in the world with wheels and a motor I can’t drive.  I could give Tom Jimson very professional advice on how he’ll never get away from that county if he blows the dam, but that’s about it from me.

May said, “Andy?  What about you?  You have millions of ideas.”

“I sure do,” Andy agreed.  “But one at a time.  And not connected with each other.  A plan, now, a plan is a bunch of ideas in a row, and, May, I’m sorry, I’ve never been good at that.”

“God damn the State of New York!” Mom cried, sideslipping past a pipe-smoking psychiatrist in a Mercury Macabre.  “They give anybody a license to drive a car!

“They also released Tom Jimson,” May pointed out.

Ken had his Cadillac, but as he drove away, he just didn’t feel very happy about it.  Much of the fun had gone out of the transaction.  There were right ways and wrong ways to do things.  A repo-man took a car, the people driving it resisted.  That was the way it had always been, that was the way it would always be.

But not with these cheesecakes.

Halfway back to the city, however, the Toyota behind him on the towbar, Ken brightened.  First Gyppo blood for him, right?  He turned on the radio and started to drum his fingers on the steering wheel in time with the music.  He’d finally figured out what was wrong with those screwy people who’d just given him the Caddy without any argument.

They were crooks; and you just couldn’t trust crooks.  Crooks never did what was right and proper.  Only the old guy who’d wanted to kill him had it right.

From 32 Cadillacs, by Joe Gores.

When suppertime came, the old cook came on deck sayin’
“Fellas, it’s too rough to feed ya”
At seven pm a main hatchway caved in, he said
“Fellas, it’s been good t’know ya”
The captain wired in he had water comin’ in
And the good ship and crew was in peril
And later that night when his lights went outta sight
Came the Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald

Gordon Lightfoot

This is the second and final Westlake novel to cross-over with a Joe Gores novel about the San Francisco based detective agency, Dan Kearny and Associates (DKA for short).   The first had actually been a Stark novel, Plunder Squad, and the crossing of paths took place relatively early in both books.  Dan Kearny is looking for a guy Parker is tangentially connected to–they met briefly just before the events of The Hunter, and it’s just enough of a connection for Kearny to persuade Parker to help him–more or less just to make Kearny go away.  It’s understood (not least by Kearny himself) that if Kearny was enough of a problem, he’d be going away for keeps.  But Parker doesn’t make murder the answer to every problem in life.

32 Cadillacs isn’t as long as Drowned Hopes, but it’s much longer than Dead Skip, the book that crossed over with Plunder Squad.  It’s also very different in subject matter and tone and even style.  Whereas Dead Skip was a grim hardboiled detective drama, full of life and death choices, 32 Cadillacs is a light comedy, where nobody gets killed at all.  DKA goes after a band of gypsies (the Romany kind, nothing to do with Jimi) who have used false identities to swindle (not heist) their way to thirty one brand new fully loaded Cadillacs  on the same day (and there’s one more, but I don’t need to explain that here).  The bank responsible for all those never-to-be-repaid loans wants the cars back.

What you see up top is a passage where a new employee of the firm, tough savvy Vietnam vet and repo zen master Ken Warren (introduced in this book, and I enjoyed the sections dealing with him most of all) proves his superior mettle once again by finding one of the Caddies,  which Kelp had unknowingly stolen from one of the Roma who had stolen it via subtler methods (it had MD plates, how was he to know?).

Contrariwise to the previous collaboration, this crosstextual encounter happens quite late in both books.  Ken’s interaction with the gang (and all other aspects of his life) is complicated by his very serious speech defect, which Westlake refers to as a ‘glottal stop.’  I have no idea if this is technically accurate in speech therapist terms, but it gets the point across.   Ken drives up in his rented Toyota Chemistra (Gores just calls it a red Toyota, since his readers won’t get the joke), and takes possession of the pilfered Caddie, only to be caught in the act.

There’s this moment of disorientation, Ken and the gang misunderstanding each other’s motives, and then Kelp figures out the mistake, and there was never a more affable guy than Kelp.  Sure, take the car, what do we care, have a great day.   Tom Jimson, who absolutely does want to make murder the answer to everything, briefly argues for killing Ken.  Well, it’s not an argument so much as a dictate, but he’s not in charge, so it’s ignored.  The Dortmunder Gang doesn’t make murder the answer to anything.  Ken, perversely enough, seems more sympathetic to Tom’s outlook.  The most hard-boiled character in Gores’ book, even though he’s got a heart as big as all outdoors.

32 Cadillacs is a light-hearted romp, as I said–a good part of it involves two members of DKA who are secretly sweet on each other going to bed with two dangerously attractive gypsies they’re pumping for intel (and I use the word ‘pumping’ advisedly), and there’s also something about a gypsy king who is said to be dying, which triggers a lot of the machinations of the book.  Ken Warren aside, it’s about as hard-boiled as a one minute egg.  I assume it was always meant to be such, since Gores says in the introduction that he was already well into writing it when Westlake, having read some early chapters, suggested another cross-over, which turned out to be in this book we’re looking at now.

But Gores, who quite possibly might have retooled aspects of his book to link up better with Westlake’s, certainly is trying for his own version of Westlake’s comic stylings here, and I will state my opinion that while Dead Skip was a fair match for Plunder Squad, this one doesn’t come close to the level of Drowned Hopes–which is a comedy, of course, but a very black one indeed.  The darkest of the Dortmunders.  The starkest, even.  So it’s both funnier and harder than Gores’ book.  Which is still well worth reading, for fans of that series.  But for fans of this series, the most interesting stuff is probably Ken’s (and therefore Gores’) impressions of the gang.

Kelp: A wiry little guy with a sharp nose.

Dortmunder: Tall and bony and middle-aged.   (Ken isn’t impressed).

Tiny: An elephant in clothes.  Not a fat elephant either.  (Ken is rightly confident in his ability to handle the toughest customers, but he gives himself no chance of taking this guy).

May: A not-bad-looking woman making unconscious motions like a person lighting a cigarette.  (Drowned Hopes is the book where chain smoker May finally kicks the habit, and it’s been hell on her, as it is on everyone).

Murch’s Mom: A feisty little woman in a man’s cloth cap.

Now of course, if we wish to, we may say that this proves that Dortmunder and Parker inhabit the same universe, since both have had dealings with DKA (even though Parker is indirectly cited as a fictional character in Drowned Hopes, when Dortmunder brings up the events of Jimmy the Kid).

But to me, 32 Cadillacs is so different from Dead Skip as to make it an alternate universe take on the DKA characters, even if it’s part of the same series overall (and the timelines don’t match up very well either).  I’ve never been a huge fan of literalism, anyway, and least of all when it gets in the way of a good story. Worth mentioning that this was the first DKA novel since the late 1970’s.  A lot has changed in the genre during the interim.  Gores is updating his technique.   To some extent so is Westlake, but he’s on much surer footing in comic terrain.  Anyway, it was a good excuse to read Gores’ book.  Back to the book at hand.

May convenes an impromptu meet of the string members in Murch’s Mom’s taxi cab.  This meeting pointedly excludes Dortmunder (who won’t even discuss going back to the reservoir) and Tom Jimson (who is in the process of recruiting people to help him blow up the dam and drown all the townspeople, something you suspect he’d cheerfully do for beer money, let alone the $700,000 buried there).

Nobody has any useful ideas as to how to persuade Dortmunder to help, nor can any of them come up with a viable plan for getting at the money without the use of dynamite.  Because none of them are heist planners–not their area of expertise.  Dortmunder is the planner, and two consecutive incidents of nearly being swallowed alive by that malevolent body of water  has left him with a serious case of PTSD (Positive Terror of Stupidly Drowning).

So Murch’s Mom (her first name still unknown to anyone other than her son–I would hope), who is, like so many loyal residents of Gotham, experiencing that periodic burnout that comes from living in the most stressful place on earth that isn’t in a state of all out civil war (not formally, anyhow), comes up with her own plan–she and May go to Dudson Center.  They rent a house (a bungalow yet!).  They live there.  Directly in the path of the impending deluge.   May keeps house.  Murch’s Mom gets a job driving for the local cab company–she drives a Plymouth Frenzy.   She gloats over the fact that the drivers there “don’t fight back.” This is what she calls a ‘vacation,’ and that’s what any real New Yorker would call it.

Dortmunder hears about this from Stan, who is peeved at his mom for abandoning New York City (and endangering her life, that too).   Dortmunder is appalled, horrified, but at the same time, he must admit to himself that the woman he’s sharing his life with is no one to be trifled with when her moral dudgeon is up.

And much as May, consort to a thief, serial shoplifter of her own employer, may practice situational ethics with the best of them, nothing arouses her moral dudgeon like the death of innocent people.  To the best of her knowledge, at least some of the people in Dudson Center and the adjacent lesser Dudsons are innocent.   And after all, God said he’d spare even Sodom and Gomorrah if there were just ten righteous men living there.   And now there are two (selectively) righteous women living in Dudson Center (possibly two more, and we’ll get to them).

Dortmunder isn’t God, but since whatever else you may say about him, he loves May with all his scruffy downtrodden Wile E. Coyote heart, it is now his sad Lot in life to try and spare this picayune Gomorrah from destruction.  (That pun was old school.  Not to mention Old Testament).

In the meantime, Doug Berry, diving instructor/playboy of the southeastern coast of Long Island, is fishing–for clues.  He knows these criminal types who had him train and equip them for freshwater diving are after something good at the bottom of a reservoir, and he wants a piece of it.  There are a lot of reservoirs in New York, but he assiduously eliminates them until he comes to do research at the North Dudson library, which is staffed by none other than the delightful Myrtle Street, illegitimate daughter of Tom Jimson, daughter to Edna, newfound friend to Wally Knurr, and now potential love interest for Doug Berry, though his primary interests lie elsewhere (namely the mirror).

The girl at the counter was pretty enough, though not as pretty as he, which he knew without gloating about it; his good looks were simply a fact of nature, a part of who he was.  (Pretty men feel differently about their beauty from pretty women, are less proud of it and protective toward it and prepared to display it.  Their attitude toward their looks is rather like the attitude of the old rich toward their money: they’re pleased to have it but consider mentioning it vulgar, even in their thoughts).

Doug approached the pretty-enough girl, smiling a winning smile, and said “Hi.”

“Hi,” she answered.  As women tended to do, she perked up in his presence.  “What can I do for you?”

“I’m interested in two things,” he told her, then grinned at himself and shook his head and said “Let me rephrase that.  Right now, there’s two things I’m interested in.”

“Two library things,” she amplified, flirting with him just slightly

Very reminiscent of Grofield’s exchange in Butcher’s Moon with Doreen, the perky young blonde librarian he charms into helping him do research, then later genially fucks in a Chevy Impala.  Is Doug a variation on Grofield?  Leaving aside the fact he’s blonde, and Grofield most definitely isn’t, Grofield is very serious and committed about both of his professions by the time we meet him. The blondes are just a sideline.  He’s already found his life’s work, and his life’s companion.   Grofield has everything he ever wanted in life other than enough cash to put on his plays.

Doug seems more like he’s shopping around for a new modus vivendi.  He’s athletic, friendly, flirtatious, generally lacking in malice but determined to get the better things in life for himself without doing the 9 to 5 crap, and while he feels the odd bit of guilt here and there, he’s mainly looking out for #1–doesn’t form strong personal attachments, at least in this stage of his life.  He figures there must be somebody who can point him to a better way of getting what he wants, give him a few pointers, get him on the road to real freedom at last.  Doesn’t think of himself as a crook, but not the least bit averse to breaking the law as long as he figures he can get away with it.  An amateur on the way to becoming a pro.

Oh right.  Stan Devers.  That’s where Doug comes from.  But this time with a very specific skill (diving) and without the military background.  Not nearly as tough and ruthless as the guy from the Parker novels (Doug wouldn’t have been able to cut it there), and with the exception of Tom (who he hasn’t met yet), neither are the guys he’s been working with here, who have tried to shut him out of this sweet score, working for a mere pittance.  He’s a bit intimidated by them, but not really scared (yet). And right now, courtesy of some old newspapers, he’s figured out that he has found both the site of the buried cash and a good looking girl to seduce and abandon.  He can multi-task.

So while Doug begins a relentless campaign for Myrtle’s maidenhead (her mother, who was getting knocked up by a felon when she was Myrtle’s age, is a bit disgusted that her girl’s still a virgin in her 20’s–each generation inverting the mistakes of the one before it), Dortmunder must embark upon the far less pleasurable and considerably more dangerous campaign of persuading Tom Jimson to give him another crack at solving the reservoir puzzle without resort to high explosives.

He’s in luck–well, you know–Dortmunder luck.   Tom is holed up in a rundown apartment building in Alphabet City, the intersection of 13th St. and Avenue C, which is a crime and drug invested hell hole in 1990 (if you want to know what it costs to live there now, you couldn’t afford it).  He recruited a few addled addicts to pull the job, figuring he didn’t need real pros to just blow the dam–two of them get blown up along with the dam, and as Dortmunder quickly deduces, the other, tasked with pulling the money coffin out of the mud would meet with some unfortunate accident afterwards (“You know me so well, Al,” Tom chuckles without actually smiling).

Well, just before Dortmunder got there, these guys decided that since they knew where the reservoir was, they didn’t need Tom.  A mistake only slightly less serious than agreeing to work with him in the first place.  The police will find their bodies eventually.

Tom was not at all pleased that Dortmunder is only interested once more in pulling the job because of a woman.  Had his existing string not unraveled so abruptly, he was probably going to give Dortmunder the same treatment.  But he must admit, finding solid professionals with absolutely no scruples or knowledge of Tom’s reputation for whacking his accomplices is harder than one might think (outside the financial sector, of course, but this isn’t their kind of job).

As they descended, Tom said, “The quality of help these days, Al, it’s a real scandal.”

“I guess it is,” Dortmunder agreed.

“You and your pals, Tom went on, “seem to have a little trouble closing with the problem, but at least you’re steady and reliable.”

“That’s right,” Dortmunder said.

“And nothing at all up your veins.”

“My blood and me,” Dortmunder said as they reached the ground floor and headed toward the smashed defense of the front door, “have an agreement.  It does its job and I don’t pester it.”

So it’s agreed.  Tom will once again put off the drowning of the Dudsons, to see if Dortmunder can find an alternate path to the coffin full of cash.  They will all move out to the bungalow in Dudson Center.   Yes, that means Tom too.  Tom himself says, the only way they can be sure he’s not blowing up the dam is if he’s directly in the path of where the water would go afterwards.  So once again May’s firm moral stance comes not without a personal price for her (and everybody else in the gang).   Well hey, if doing right didn’t have any drawbacks, we’d all be saints, right?

We see Tom take the Amtrak train from Penn, robbing a naive kid along the way, and enjoying  what the narrator describes as ‘interior monologue’, informing us parenthetically that “A man no one can trust is a man who can trust no one, and therefore is a man liable to take to the diversion of internal monologue.”

But internal monologue can only divert one so long.  And in this transit-based chapter, there’s a reference I’m still trying to comprehend.  We’re told Tom is reading a paperback book.  Fiction.  Something we know Parker would never ever do, and probably not Dortmunder either, unless Kelp made him.

The book is Dark Hazard, by W.R. Burnett, and I’m belatedly pleased to confirm my earlier suspicions that Westlake was well familiar with that pioneering crime author, not that there was ever much doubt in my mind.  I’ve read Drowned Hopes before, but didn’t pick up on this last time out.  Having recently read The Asphalt Jungle to prepare for my article about potential influences on the Parker novels, my curiosity was piqued.  I got a copy of Dark Hazard.  First edition.  Not expensive.  Wish I’d gotten the paperback.

Tom has almost finished the book after two hours on the train (it’s over 300 pages in hardcover, so Tom’s a fast reader).  We’re told that he can see by that time that it’s not going to have a happy ending.  We’re not told what that means, though.  We’re not told a blessed thing about the book except its title and that Tom Jimson is reading it intently.

So when I reached that passage a few weeks back, I figured maybe Tom just likes to see a lot of mayhem and murder in his stories (and who doesn’t?)–we’ve been told about his unnerving habit of cackling gleefully when he’s watching television and bad things happen to good people, so for him maybe the only happy ending is a tragic one.  Or maybe it’s a heist story, and for him a happy ending means the crooks get away with it.  But see, neither of those could be the answer to the question of why he thinks it’s not a happy ending, because this isn’t really a crime novel at all, per se, and there’s absolutely no killing and damned little violence in it.  Two brief fistfights is about all.

Dark Hazard is about Jim, a big shambling good-hearted guy who used to keep a string of thoroughbreds.  Gambled on the races and any other action he came across.  He was good with the horses, but he had to give them up, because they eat a lot, and his finances were erratic, as is the case with most gamblers.  Then he met this classy dame whose once-genteel family had come on hard times due to irresponsible men, and somehow the two of them clicked, and got married, and he reformed for her, because she despises all aspects of the Sporting Life, considers it low-class (she’s from Ohio–as was Burnett himself).  It’s all very O. Henry, up to this point.  You could imagine him selling his watch, only to find she’d sold her hair.

Then through an odd series of events, he becomes enamored of greyhound racing, and in particular of this one dog named Dark Hazard (you can just call him Pat), a shy mild-mannered coal black pooch who just happens to be a demon on the track, and who returns the hero’s affections in full measure.

Clearly Burnett knew his onions about these dogs, as he ought to have done, since he owned War Cry, a champion racer, who appears in the movie version of this book with Edward G. Robinson, because nearly every book Burnett ever wrote had a movie version, only they should have waited until Sterling Hayden was available (but how could they know that in 1934?).

Anyway, Jim’s wife feels like he’s backsliding, she’s pregnant, she’s terrified of economic ruin, of coming down in the world, after what she’s been through already, so she leaves him, taking most of his winnings with her, leaving Jim destitute and broken.  He eventually rejoins  her in Ohio, but then he finds out Dark Hazard has fallen on hard times, and will be destroyed if he doesn’t buy him, so he does.  Having such a dog, he wants to race him.  That’s the final straw for the marriage (the wife had already cheated on him with her old Ohio boyfriend, who she will now marry, and whose physical description sounds oddly like Burnett’s, based on the photos I’ve seen–Jim knocks him down before he leaves).

So as the book ends, our hero is heading towards the dog track, homeless and broke, and he’s sad over what happened, but he never belonged in that life, you see.  It was never right for him–he was just pretending, working boring dead end jobs in the Depression, never having any real fun, never being who he was, just so he could stay married to a woman who didn’t even want to understand him.

And then he cheers up at the very end, forgets his sadness, faces life bravely once more, because now he can have the life he originally wanted, the one he had before with the ponies, except anybody who isn’t a total bum (which Jim isn’t) can afford to keep a dog (hell, I’ve seen actual bums with dogs who looked happier than many a pampered poodle).  And the dog, unlike the woman, loves him for exactly who and what he is.  When this dog dies, there’ll be others, perhaps sired by Dark Hazard.  Jim’s living the life he was meant for, and it’s not perfect, it’s not without risks, but neither is any other.  So to me, that actually is a happy ending.  Bittersweet, let’s say.

But not to Tom.  Why?   He doesn’t care about women–when Dortmunder braces him about May, he says Dortmunder needs to realize there’s a lot of women in the world and just one you.  From Tom’s POV, Jim wasn’t living the good life when we met him, he was working as a hotel clerk, with basically zero chance of advancement.  All he’s done is change a life he didn’t want with a woman he loved for the life he does want, with a dog he loves basically just as much, only the dog doesn’t nag.  Jim’s attractive to the bolder brassier women who frequent the racing world, so there’ll be female companionship as well as canine.

Tom probably doesn’t give a damn about dogs either (maybe he’s even a bit scared of them, as Dortmunder is, and as I’ve sometimes thought Westlake was), but what would have been a happy ending for him?  Westlake knows, because he always knows more about his characters than he tells us in the books.  But I can’t figure the angle here.  And that bugs me.  The book is referenced three times in this chapter.   Why mention it at all?   There was never a more thoughtful writer than Donald E. Westlake.  He had his own interior monologue going on at all times.

Hmmm.   Maybe that’s it.  Tom Jimson is Donald E. Westlake.   An aspect of him he doesn’t often give voice to in his books, except maybe here and there in his villains.  A darker version of his own self, with that patented sardonic sense of humor, and a jaundiced view of human nature–without the compensating empathy and friendliness, not to mention a means of self-expression that doesn’t require actual violence.  Somebody who has entirely tuned out the needs and wants of others, to concentrate exclusively on what he wants and how to get it.

And here’s the clincher (and it took me too damn long to notice it).  Burnett’s novel first saw the light of day in 1933–same year Westlake was born (prematurely) in New York.  Coincidence my Aunt Fanny. Tom is Westlake.  Westlake isn’t Tom, but he doesn’t have any problem imagining how he could have become some version of Tom, if a few things had gone differently (like for example if his father hadn’t gotten him out of trouble when he was caught stealing that microscope in college).

Same way he created Parker–imagine a different path, focus in on an isolated part of his identity, magnify and extrapolate it–but Parker was given life by the romantic in him–Tom by the cynic.  What all romantics become someday.  And as he told us in an earlier book, cynicism is a spectrum–there’s always somebody more cynical and selfish than you.  But suppose you turned the dial all the way up to eleven?  Then you’d have Tom Jimson.

So for Tom, a happy ending would be Jim realizing that caring about anyone else, even a dog, is the bunk.  He should have gone back to the life he enjoyed, sure, ditch the ball & chain–but just live for himself, nobody else.  Take what he wants, who he wants, when he wants.   But the big dumb ox is a natural born simp–he’s got to have somebody in his life to care about, to look after, to come home to, even if it’s just a dumb animal.  That’s why it’s not a happy ending to Tom Jimson.

And how many people reading this book would get any of that?   This isn’t Little Caesar.  Dark Hazard is barely even remembered as a movie these days.  That’s not the point.  The point is that Westlake knows his man.  Because part of him is that man.  And the best way to exorcise a devil in yourself, or at least hold him in check, is to see him, clearly, for what he is.

Okay, now I feel better.  By the way, ending aside, I personally didn’t think Burnett’s book was that good (you can ask me why in the comments section if you give a damn), but that isn’t the point either.  Synopsis resumes.

Dortmunder knows Tom isn’t going to wait very long for him to solve the problem.  He goes back to see Wally Knurr, who serves John cheese and crackers (he does this anytime somebody comes calling), and Dortmunder levels with him about what Tom is going to do if they can’t find an alternate plan.  Realizing that people he’s come to like–Myrtle Street and ‘Miss May’ (this is what he calls her, nerds can be courtly)–Wally runs through a bunch of simulations on his computer, and the ones that involve Spaceships from Zog go fine, but the ones that involve dynamite invariably mean drowning a lot of people.

Dortmunder expresses his discontent that he came to talk to a person about his problems, and now he’s talking to a machine that thinks there’s a planet named Zog–Wally realizes he’s been using the computer as a crutch to avoid dealing with people.  He turns it off, and they talk–and he asks a simple question–why not just get that diving instructor guy in on the job?  This is his area of expertise, just like heist planning is Dortmunder’s, and computers are Wally’s.

Dortmunder is dumbfounded as to why he didn’t think of this before–he realizes he likes to be the one who makes the plans, and was resisting bringing in another specialist.  He tells Wally to sell the computer, he doesn’t need it.  And of course Wally won’t do that, but that’s Dortmunder’s way of telling him he’s smart.  If the computer is any good for anything, it’s because Wally made it that way.

They can’t find Doug, because Doug is too busy trying to find his way into Myrtle’s vagina, and he’s almost fucking there (I know what I said), when Dortmunder catches the two of them on the porch of Myrtle’s house, about to adjourn to the bedroom.  Doug gets dragged away, and Myrtle is very confused, and somewhat relieved, and very disappointed, and still a virgin.  And I’m somewhat reminded of a similar and yet very different coitus interruptus scene in Memory, involving an amnesiac actor and a plain girl named Edna (which I’ll remind you again is Myrtle’s mother’s name).

After listening to Tom Jimson calmly discuss how they should dispose of his body, then having Stan Murch do an abrupt 180 turn on the highway as they head back to New York (just to show off his own skill set, Doug is feeling very very cooperative, as people in a state of mild shock generally tend to feel.  He’ll take whatever cut they’re offering.

Studying the layout on Wally’s computer, he says the way to do it is to get a boat and dive for the treasure–there are ways to triangulate in on it, and to get it up to the surface, without resort to walking along the surface, or following the train tracks in a converted AMC Hornet.  Dortmunder was thinking like a landlubber, because he is a landlubber (he’s lubbing that land more and more, all the time).

So Dortmunder and Tom retrieve one last old stash of Tom’s to get the needed materials, and if you’ve somehow gotten this far without having read the book, and I told you where it was, you wouldn’t believe it.  Honestly, I don’t believe it either.  Call it an homage to The Master of Suspense.  Or The Great Emancipator. You’ll know what I mean when you get there.

So they’re all set–and the weather is wrong.  Clear skies, day and night.  Big bright moon in the sky.  Like all thieves, they need the cover of darkness.  So they wait for the clouds to set in, and as they wait–they change.  They’re just living there in Dudson Center, in this little bungalow, and it’s not their natural habitat, and it’s changing them.  Travel, a change in setting, changes people, alters their identities in ways subtle and otherwise.  Westlake wrote an entire book about that, you may recall.

Stan buys an old wreck of a Lincoln Atlantis (I’m pretty sure that’s another made up car name, but I won’t check, because I kind of wish it wasn’t), and starts fixing it up in the driveway.  His mother starts playing canasta with Myrtle’s mother Edna (neither of them knowing they’re connected to each other through Myrtle and Doug), and I know there is such a game as canasta but I have no idea how it works, and I’d rather no one told me.

Murch’s Mom was enjoying the country at first–the way nobody fights back on the road, the way they let you make a turn, the way everybody is polite–as Stan warned her, it’s starting to wear on her now–she’s afraid she’s getting soft. They’re all getting a bit soft (except for Tom, obviously–he’s happy to watch the rest of them getting soft, makes his part of the job at the very end easier). They’re all starting to lose that city edge.   They’re on vacation.  Until the clouds roll in.   And they always do.

Andy’s going to have to dive with Doug, and Dortmunder feels a bit guilty watching him get ready, but not guilty enough to volunteer to go into that water again.  Andy ends up enjoying the dive, once he adjusts–this is fun!  He’s flying like Superman!   Dortmunder’s plodding along the bottom was never the way. He and Doug find the coffin with the money in it.  They grin at each other down under the water–a meeting of minds.  Two rogues with a shared purpose.

In the meantime, Myrtle has been spying on the bungalow, just a stone’s throw from her house.  Who are all these people?   So much intrigue–the father she’s never known, the seemingly nice little fat guy who showed her how to use a computer, and the big handsome guy who almost showed her how to–you know. Somehow they’re all connected.   There’s some kind of master plan.  But who could be behind it?   Who’s the boss?   She’s a librarian who has led a sheltered life in a small town.  All she really knows is books.   And since it’s a small town library, mainly not very good books.

Conspiracy.   Was Wally the mastermind?  Or was he even now in contact with the mastermind, either in an experimental laboratory concealed within Mount Shasta (Bond) or in an unknown cavern deep beneath the Pentagon (Ludlum)?  Absorbed by Wally’s absorption, feeling that secret pleasure known to peeping Toms everywhere, Myrtle rested the front edge of the binoculars against the window and watched that round, gleaming, wet-eyed, passionate face.  Aliens?  SPECTRE?  A conspiracy at the very highest levels of government?

Or could it, could it somehow be…the Mafia?  Good God!  Was she going to have to read Jackie Collins?

Now that’s what I call a fate worse than death.  Myrtle wonders what nefarious schemes Wally is concocting through his diabolical device.

Wally, of course, is communicating not with a mastermind in an experimental laboratory, but with his computer, which isn’t hooked up to the nascent internet, but still has all the protocols Wally has programmed into it, so he can use it to puzzle out the varied dilemmas of his life.  He sees Myrtle as The Princess, and wishes to rescue her–but he’s not sure she needs rescuing from anything.  The computer, only knowing the games they play, assures him that the hero need only wait for his moment.  But the computer has been given to understand that this particular game is being played in the Real World, which it only knows through Wally.

Remember the specific rule of the game of Real Life.

Of course I remember it.  I entered it into you myself.

Nevertheless.  It is:

  • The tape of Real Life plays only once.
  • There are no corrections or adjustments.
  • Defeat is irreversible.

I know.   I know.  I know.

Why any hero would wish to play such a game is incomprehensible.

(And why I even try to replicate these typographically complex exchanges here in the digital world is also a bit of a puzzle.  As I’ve mentioned, even the Kindle edition doesn’t really manage to get it right.)

So out on the reservoir, that specific rule is asserting itself–it’s raining.  Well, they wanted clouds, didn’t they?   Dortmunder first writes it off as just another jest of the Almighty at his expense, but quickly realizes the inflatable dinghy with the outboard motor Doug said would be adequate for the job is filling with water. It’s going to sink.  He tries to stop it from sinking.  He ends up making it sink faster.

So when Doug and Andy see Dortmunder’s shoe sinking down towards them, they get the idea something’s not right.  They go up, and they can’t find the boat. Or Dortmunder.  A search is made.  No Dortmunder.  They go home sadly.   May, just beginning to despair, goes into the bedroom she and John share. Dortmunder.  She screams.  Women, right?

He saw a light off in the distance and swam for it.  It was the reservoir office in the dam itself, where Bob works.  Remember Bob?   Oh I won’t do that to you again.   But Dortmunder does it to Bob one last time.  He crawls into Bob’s car. In his underwear.  Just to get out of the rain.  He falls asleep.  Then Bob and two co-workers get into the car, to drive home.

Bob has just gotten out of the hospital recently.  Many strange things have happened to him.  His grasp on sanity has become tenuous.  The drugs are not entirely helping.  Apparently he’s now seeing an irritated looking man clad only in wet underpants, crouched below the front seat of his car, frowning at him, and warning him with various threatening gestures not to tell his co-workers (both of whom think Bob is nutso anyway) he’s there.

Dortmunder made his escape without Bob’s coworkers noticing.  Bob quietly asked to go back to the hospital.   No more is seen of Bob.

And no more remains of the Third Down.  Just one more to go (well, there’s a small fraction of a down after that, but we’ll just roll that into the fourth one, because seriously).

I think I myself need a vacation, and in fact I shall soon be departing my fair city, currently in the grips of a heat wave, and make my way to a fine hostelry in Upstate New York for a few days of west and wewaxation at wast.  The Overlook Lodge.  I don’t know why you’re reacting that way, it’s a real place, I can assure you.  We have reservations and everything.   It’s dog friendly (I believe we have the Cujo Room).  I do hope they have red rum there, I’ve always wanted to try it.

So I will try to get this one finished before the end of the month–there’s wifi there, and like Murch’s Mom, I sometimes do a little work while I’m vacationing. All play and no work makes Fred a dull boy.  All play and no work makes Fred a dull boy.  All play and no work makes Fred…….

PS: If anyone’s wondering, no, I am not getting any payola from the Great Lakes Brewing Company, located in beautiful Cleveland (I’m not even getting free beer!), but I finally managed to get some of their superlative brews, bizarrely unavailable here in New York City–ordered them from a company there that specializes in Trappist Ales and other quality items made in monasteries, and Great Lakes decidedly isn’t a monastery, but Clevelanders stick together, which I trust shall stand them in good stead tonight. You survived burning rivers, guys. You’ll survive this.  We all will.  And I love my new t-shirt I bought on ebay.

At times in this world, we all are.


Filed under Donald Westlake novels, John Dortmunder novels

Genealogy of a Hunter, Part 2

As I said, in some subterranean way Parker had come out of or been formed by that experiment in unstated emotion in “361”, and his habit of doing rather than reacting has made him for me the ideal series character; since he won’t tell me what he really wants, he can never use himself up by becoming completely satisfied.

I don’t mean to be hyperbolic when I suggest my own creation is in some ways still mysterious to me. I record his doings, and I know when what I put down is right, but I can’t always explain it, least of all to myself. Why does Parker wait in dark rooms? Why is he so totally loyal without ever showing comradeliness? What is the money for?

Going back to Buck Moon’s suggestion, I did hesitate for some time, unsure what might lay further down that road. I was very aware of the dangers inherent in sequels; any number of writers have returned to a well only to find it poisoned. (A sequel to The Desperado, that early Gold Medal Western, was written and was so bad it almost destroyed the original.) Nevertheless, finally, because of Parker, and also because of the money (a motivation Parker would understand), and also because of the implicit test of my skills (another nod from Parker), I told Buck Moon I’d give it a shot.

The change in The Hunter was so easy, so easy. It became at once evident that my earlier ending had been false, that Parker wouldn’t have permitted himself such a sleazy finish. When I let him have his way with those cops, he was even quicker and less emotional than usual; because I was watching, I suppose, and life was starting. The look he gave me over his shoulder as he went through the revolving door contained no gratitude, but on the other hand it didn’t contain scorn either. He isn’t a wiseguy.

A few years after his birth, I discussed Parker with a movie director for a (finally aborted) planned film from one of the books, and this director claimed that Parker was really French, since the difference between fictional French robbers and fictional American robbers is that the French steal because that’s what they do, while the Americans steal to get money for their crippled niece’s operation. English-language villains (other than Iago) have to be explained, while French-language villains are existential.

It was an interesting distinction he’d found there, but I thought it at the time too narrow, and I still do, since in every other respect Parker is as American as Dillinger. In fact, I think he may have appeared now and again in the past, in war stories and police stories and even Westerns, the silent, morally neutral fellow barely visible in a dark corner of the setting, who suddenly and inexplicably helps the hero out of a tight spot, than laconically fades into the shadows again, with no explanation asked or given. That was romantic bunkum, of course; it would take more than a hero in trouble to make him really take a hand. But the writers were aware of him back there, and wanted to use him somehow. So did I, but without embarrassing either of us.

Donald E. Westlake, from (again) the Introduction to the Gregg Press edition of The Hunter

Jupiter commanded all the birds to appear before him, so that he might choose the most beautiful to be their king. The ugly jackdaw, collecting all the fine feathers which had fallen from the other birds, attached them to his own body and appeared at the examination, looking very gay.

The other birds, recognizing their own borrowed plumage, indignantly protested, and began to strip him.

“Hold!” said Jupiter; “this self-made bird has more sense than any of you. He shall be your king.”

Ambrose Bierce (plagiarizing Aesop)

What is originality?   What does it mean to be original?  The question itself is deeply derivative, but worth asking again in this context, I think.  When it comes to art, does it mean to do something first, or to do it so well, so memorably, so influentially, that all those who follow in your wake owe something to you?  Many later works trace their origins to what you did.    But didn’t that ‘original’ piece of work in fact find its own origin in many earlier ones, and they in turn to still earlier works, going all the way back before the dawn of history, to artists whose names no one will ever know?

Most people who care, Donald Westlake most definitely included, would say the most original writer in American crime fiction was Dashiell Hammett, but he did not, in fact, originate hardboiled detective fiction, cynical worldly-wise two-fisted private dicks navigating the seamy underside of industrial-era America, or really any of the now-familiar tropes of that genre.  What made him original?  His style.  His eye for character, for story, for the telling little detail.  Not what he did, nearly so much as the way he did it.

His authenticity as well–his firsthand knowledge of the terrain–but the problem with that was that his success as a writer took him further and further away from the life he’d drawn upon for that authenticity, and when he ran out of experiences to draw upon, he didn’t know where else he could draw from.  He stopped writing, and continued drinking.  But he’d started something that could survive–and thrive–without him.  And still does, after a fashion.

Well, that’s mere genre, of course.  Nobody expects originality in Genre-ville (and yet it shows up there with perverse regularity, for all that).  When we talk about originality in literature–when we talk about Literature with the upper case ‘L’–don’t we really mean somebody like Vladimir Nabokov?  A writer Westlake oddly compared to Hammett once, said they both had a knack for writing characters who could show us their emotions indirectly, without speaking them out loud.  But Hammett was just cranking out entertaining nonsense for the pulps.  Nabokov was crafting revolutionary innovative stories nobody had ever told before.  Like Lolita.  A book without any direct antecedent. Except for a book with exactly the same title and premise published forty years earlier.

And this should serve as a lesson to all of us who say this or that writer was the first to do such and such.  How do we know?  How could we ever know?   So many novels and stories and plays and films and radio shows, and television shows and comic books and my head spins around in circles just thinking about it.

Even something as seemingly simple as divining what influences went into producing a hardboiled crime paperback in the early 60’s can turn into a maze of obscure references and cross-references.  The more we read, the more we know–and the more we know that we know nothing.  Because we realize how selective our memory of literature really is, how many innovative fascinating works have been stuffed into our pop cultural attic and forgotten by all but a handful of cognoscenti–I daresay even Patti Abbott doesn’t know how many.

All of which makes it even more remarkable when a book that by all rights should have been relegated to that attic, isn’tThe Hunter is by no means the most famous or well-regarded book published in 1962, or anywhere near it, but it’s the only hardboiled crime novel that appears on this list.  It’s also one of the very few mystery novels on it.  And perhaps more importantly, it’s currently at #42 on this list.  Critical respect is nice and all, but not as nice as being read from generation to generation.  Because, as Westlake liked to say, the difference between being in and out of print is the same as being alive or dead.  The Parker novels are very much alive, and look to stay that way.

And sure, that’s partly down to famous film adaptations, Darwyn Cooke’s graphic novels, a certain website I might name, and Levi Stahl’s one man crusade to get those novels back into bookstores (and assorted digital devices).  But all of that derives from the enduring fascination inspired by the books themselves, and all of them spring from this book, the start of a saga that spanned twenty-four novels written over the course of maybe forty-six years, depending on when Dirty Money was finished.

So if a book is that important, maybe we could devote a little time and thought to figuring out where the hell it came from.  Because books don’t just write themselves.  Not even paperbacks with deliciously lurid covers.  Worth a try, no?

Last time, I touched on some plot elements in The Hunter that seem to have been inspired by Graham Greene and Raymond Chandler.  But the real key to the longterm success of the Parker novels is Parker himself.  Where did he come from?  From a lot of places.  There had never been a character like him before–but at the same time, Westlake suggested, he’d always been there,  though not usually as a protagonist.  Storytellers sensed the potential of a morally neutral character who is somehow still admirable, even heroic, in ways that are hard to explain.  But they were held back by the conventions of whatever form they were working in (and all forms have their conventions).

Westlake himself was going to kill Parker off, then an editor at a publisher said “If you bring him back for a few books a year, we’ll buy the first book.”  And as he said in the quote up top, he quickly realized the story worked better that way.   Not really believing in what he was doing, he’d written an arbitrary “Bad guys always get their just deserts in the end” finish to a story it just didn’t belong in, because its hero didn’t live in a world of good and bad, right and wrong. He was outside of all that.   He was something else.

And the fact that Gold Medal published The Name of the Game is Death that same year–with its unapologetic thief, murderer (and rapist) still alive, if somewhat worse for wear, vowing he’ll be back–shows that publishers in this declining niche were willing to experiment a bit.  That character’s moral ambiguity didn’t hold up long, though–because Dan J. Marlowe simply wasn’t as good and honest a writer as Donald E. Westlake (and maybe because that book actually wasn’t a big seller for Gold Medal).  He turned his bank robber into a government agent by the third book, an organization man–that ruined him.  The problems were already there in the second book, though.  Marlowe didn’t know what he had, didn’t know how to build on it.  Sequels are tough to write for characters like this.  Westlake knew that.

We’ll talk more about Mr. Marlowe in future, but leaving him aside, as I mentioned already, Patricia Highsmith had beaten both him and Westlake to the punch with Ripley, in 1955.  Except she had not known what to do with Ripley after letting him walk away from cold-blooded murder with a nice income left to him by his victim.  Unlike Parker, he would kill people who were not really guilty of anything except bad life choices.  Ripley wouldn’t return until 1970, and would only be in five books over the course of 36 years.  He personally murdered a total of ten people.   His only real goal was to be independently wealthy, and live in his nice villa with his rich beautiful French wife.  And to not be bored.

Highsmith liked writing about him, the books sold well, but there just wasn’t all that much she could do with him–he wasn’t a character you could write lots and lots of books about.  He got used up too easily, once you solved his problems.   The last book quite intentionally did just that, and she was done–a few years before her death in 1995.

Westlake, having taken a long break from Parker starting in the mid-70’s, came back to him in the 90’s, and was writing Parker books up until very shortly before his sudden death from heart failure.  The last book was published the year he died.  He self-evidently was laying the groundwork in that last book for more books he didn’t know if he’d get to write or not.  Parker couldn’t be used up, so he doesn’t have an ending.  Moral or otherwise.  But he had a beginning–many of them–false starts, I’d call them.  Three in particular.

W.R. Burnett‘s The Asphalt Jungle, probably the first modern heist novel (depends on how you define it), is not that much read today.  Burnett isn’t that much read today, you get right down to it.  His deep influence on crime fiction came about in an odd and lucrative way–by having Hollywood grab his books when the ink was scarcely dry, and make truly great movies out of them, that overshadowed the original works, made them almost irrelevant footnotes to themselves. (Would I have read the book at hand if it weren’t for John Huston’s movie?  Nope.).

He seems to have liked Hollywood, met his second wife Whitney there (an ambitious and very attractive studio secretary), and I don’t know exactly how he felt about the creative compromises he’d made.  But I do know that without him, we wouldn’t be talking about Parker novels, because there’d be none to talk about.  Here’s a picture of himself and the missus, from the back dust jacket of my personal copy of The Asphalt Jungle.

KIC Image 0001(8)

I guess her horse is just out of frame.  It’s really hard to read that book, look at that photo, and not make certain connections to the story (if you’ve seen the film, you know the story), written a few years after he married the second Mrs. Burnett, who I rather suspect he left the first Mrs. Burnett for, but I don’t know offhand.  Looks expensive, doesn’t she?  But this book is dedicated to her, and I get the impression she was a driving force in his career, much more than just a trophy.  There was no third Mrs. Burnett.  Anyway, that’s not our main point of interest here.

The book opens with a quote from William James–“Man, biologically speaking…is the most formidable of all beasts of prey, and, indeed, the only one that preys systematically on its own species.”   Hmmmmmmm……..

I shouldn’t need to summarize the plot–Huston was maybe the best and most faithful adapter of crime novels in the history of film.  But never slavishly faithful.  The novel has a lot of extraneous details that Huston necessarily cut out, and makes a few significant changes (to the ending in particular), all of which improve the story.  The book reads at points almost like a treatment for a movie.  Burnett knew by this point who his real audience was–the studios.

But that doesn’t mean he didn’t have things of his own to say.  His prose is plodding but effective.  His characters maybe a bit two-dimensional at times–stock types, to be eventually played by stock players, but vivid and believable for all that.  His plotting is solid and sure.  And he’s got a vision, a theme, of outsiders struggling against the system, and against themselves.  He’s not a great writer, even by pulp standards (the pulp standard being Hammett), but he’s maybe half of the way there.  Sometimes more than half.

A tall rawboned, dark-faced man of indeterminate age was standing in the doorway, looking down at him with mild surprise.  Riemenschneider felt a sudden prickliness in his scalp and an unpleasant coldness in his hands as the tall man probed him with his dark eyes.  “A bad one,” said the little doctor to himself, as he looked up blankly.

Dix  Handley.  You hear that name and you see Sterling Hayden in your mind’s eye, and that really was Hollywood casting at its best–but that’s not quite the image that comes to you when you read the book.  Still, the movie captures everything essential to the character, his laconic toughness, his odd criminal sense of honor, his implacable need to mete out retribution to anyone who insults or crosses him.  But he’s not a thinker, a planner.  He’s all action, instinct, no brains. He’s only good in the moment.  But he’s damned good in the moment.

Then there’s Riemenschneider, the little German heist planner (one of a number of roles Sam Jaffe was born to play).  A genius at what he does, almost more in love with getting the money than spending it (mainly on women).  His weakness is that he can’t resist a pretty young face, even when he’s on the run–and of course he’s no good at violence, it rather disgusts him (though he’s not a man you want to cross either).

He’s increasingly impressed by Dix, sees some mysterious power in him he can only vaguely recognize and understand.  He begins to see Dix as almost a missing half that would complete him–Blaster to his Master, you might say (Fafhrd to his Gray Mouser?).  He suggests they become partners, escape to Mexico together, but Dix isn’t interested.  Westlake was interested, though.  Don’t even try to tell me he wasn’t.

Dix’s main weakness, aside from his lack of planning ability, is that he thinks that down inside he’s still the horse farmer he was raised to be down south, still a Jamieson, still remembering the life that was taken away from him, still dreaming of getting it back, buying the land they lost, raising horses.  It’s not who he is anymore, but he can’t bring himself to see that.  The old country boy in him is stronger than the beast of prey.  He’s best when he’s living in the present, but he’s usually mired in the past.  That’s his tragedy, and tragic characters always come equipped with tragic endings.

(Did I mention Dix has huge knobby-knuckled hands?   No?  Remiss of me.)

Anyway, this is the book that really started the specific sub-genre Parker lives in (there may be earlier examples, but between the book and the film, this would still be the real starting point).   The loot is in a tough spot to get at, but there’s a plan that could work.  You have to finance the job, which means dealing with suits.  You have to gather together a talented string of professionals, each of whom comes with a certain amount of unavoidable baggage–there are weak links, unanticipated wrinkles.  Nothing ever succeeds as planned. The robbers are caught and/or killed.   So that the honest people reading about them can enjoy the thrill of plotting and executing a heist without sharing in the guilt–so they can tell themselves “We’re still good people, after all.”

Well, maybe that last part isn’t 100% necessary?  Who do we like in this story?  The cops?  Not even a little bit.  They’re just the Hayes Office censors with badges and guns.  The only people you ever love in a Burnett crime novel are crooks.  You root for them, and then you grieve for them.  But sometimes, in Burnett, that veers over into cheap sentimentality.  That we could do without.  That’s maybe what stops him from getting all the way to being a great writer.  But he got close a few times.  And he got rich.  And he got the second Mrs. Burnett.  There were compensations.

(Obviously I’m not qualified to judge him as a writer on the basis of one book–those who have read more of him sometimes paint a more glowing portrait. But still have to concede his reputation today stems mainly from the movies.)

Anyway, compensations aside, there were imitators.  Lots of them.  That’s how genres begin.  The book was published in 1949, and the movie released in 1950 (meaning MGM had probably gone into pre-production before the book was even printed).  It was a critical success, but a box office dud.  A bit ahead of the curve.  As truly influential works often tend to be.  Other aspiring storytellers read that book, saw that movie, recognized the potential.  One of them was David Goodis.

The heist story was never his main thing.  ‘The Poet of the Losers’ was more about people who had hit rock bottom in life finding themselves in some kind of trouble, looking for an escape hatch, not always finding it.  He came at this story from a variety of angles, drawn mainly from crime fiction, but not invariably.

The way Black Friday came about was that Goodis had submitted a novel to Arnold Hano at Lion Books–The Blonde on the Street Corner.  It’s a book about a poor Philadelphia kid in the Depression who can’t get work, and he lives with his parents, hangs out with his loser friends, and they dream about making it big, and there’s this nice girl he loves but he can’t afford to marry her, so he decides to settle for easy sex with a married woman.   That’s how it ends.  That’s the entire story.  It’s not noir, it’s not crime fiction, there are no actual crimes committed other than adultery, and I believe there’s exactly one fist fight, because there has to be a fist fight in a Goodis novel.

Hano reluctantly published it–Goodis was a name, and Lion Books was the bottom of the barrel.   Goodis kind of enjoyed the bottom of the barrel (it’s a Goodis thing), and probably figured if he wanted to keep getting published there, he better write a book with some crime in it.  Black Friday was it.  Hano thought there could have been a bit more action, but overall, he was fairly satisfied.

Black Friday starts with a young man of limited funds and no shelter facing a Philadelphia winter without an overcoat.  So he steals one.  The cops are after him, and not just for the overcoat; there’s a backstory (always a backstory). Through an unlikely sequence of events (though not for a Goodis protagonist), he ends up joining a gang of burglars who specialize in robbing rich houses on the Main Line.  Because hey, why not?

The protagonist in this book, named Hart, is not our primary concern.   For my money, the most interesting character is the leader of the string, a thin silver-haired man whose name is Charley.  He doesn’t need a last name.  What he really needs is to be played by John Slattery if they ever make another movie of this book (though Robert Ryan, in the 1972 French version I haven’t seen yet, might be even better).

The man with silver hair was saying, “You’re too much trouble.”

Hart said, “I don’t know about you, but I don’t like to be choked.”

“Do you think I like to shoot people?”

“No,” Hart said, “You’re a nice guy.  You’re a swell guy.  You wouldn’t shoot anybody.”

“Unless I had a reason.”

“And would it have to be a good reason?”

“Sure,” said the man with the silver hair.  “I don’t like to shoot people.  I don’t get any special kick out of it.”

Charley, unlike Dix, is the heist planner–the brains of the outfit.   Surrounded by temperamental idiots who complicate his work.  He’s constantly being forced to decide who lives or dies.  He’s also suffering from impotence, a problem he can only temporarily solve by getting really drunk every few months.  And he is suffering–he does not see this as a normal loss of interest that can be fixed by pulling a job.  But Charley’s not the type to whine about a bad break–what can’t be cured must be endured, as the saying goes.  (Pfizer begs to differ.)

His amply proportioned lady love (big lusty women are another Goodis leitmotif, and not just in his fiction) is having a hard time dealing with the abstinence thing, and even though she truly loves Charley, she turns to the young protagonist to solve her problem, and even though he’s falling for a girl his age who lives at the hideout (it won’t end well, because Goodis), he’s in no position to say no, because this older woman knows he’s not really a crook.  The big crime the law wants him for was not committed for money.   He’s an amateur.

Charley doesn’t like it, the two of them knocking boots, but he doesn’t kill over sex.  He kills over unprofessional behavior.  If he found out Hart wasn’t really on the bend, he’d whack him on general principle.  Nothing personal.   People should do their jobs.  His job is to steal.   He only trusts people who see that as their job too.  He’s got some pretty dangerous guys in this gang of his.   They’re all scared to death of him.  One of them has a beef with Hart.  Charley could care less about his beef.  They have a chat.

“Look Charley, I don’t like that guy.”

“And I don’t like you,” Charley said.  “But I put up with you because you know your work.  I like the way you work, but there’s got to be satisfaction on both sides.  Do you like the pay?”

“Look, Charley–”

“Do you like the pay?”

“I like the pay.”

“All right, then, you do as you’re told.   And don’t do things I don’t want you to do.”

There’s this weariness in his voice you can hear in every word he utters.  He knows he’s the only real professional in the bunch.  He knows they’re going to keep doing stupid things, and he’s going to have to clean up the mess.  But this is what he does, and these are the people he needs to do it with.

So he’s got these rules, this code he lives by, and you think you know what he’s going to do, but then he surprises you.  There’s a guy a bit like him in Goodis’ earlier book, Nightfall, but he’s much better developed here.   On the one hand, he’s got no conscience, no qualms about killing people who complicate his work in some way, professionals or civilians.  But on the other hand, there seems to be more to him than that.   He’s not so easy to sum up, Charley.  I won’t even try. Read the book.

Westlake read the book–he mentions Goodis specifically in that intro to the Gregg Press reprint of The Hunter I keep bringing up.  He was reading the Gold Medal crime novels incessantly, probably even before he was a professional writer.   This particular book isn’t a Gold Medal, but he would have been reading Lion Books originals as well, particularly if he already knew the author from Gold Medal.

I was the right age at the right time to be very heavily influenced by the arrival of Gold Medal books. These were in the fictional form known as the novel; but not really–or so it seemed at first. They were stripped down and lumpy and crude, like a beach buggy. Half the time they seemed little more than 50,000-word short stories; all that build-up, all those characters, all that preparation of setting and emotions and scenes and relationships, just to end in a shootout in a swamp. These yellow-spined paperbacks had compulsive strength, but without beauty, like acid rock: but they were interesting.

And either the books got better or my critical sense got worse. In any event, I began gradually to make sense among the by-lines in this new garden, and to realize that here too there were gradations from very good to very very very very bad. Once I’d separated the writers from the bricklayers, everything was fine.

Gold Medal introduced me to John D. MacDonald, Vin Packer, Chester Himes, David Goodis and, by far the most important, Peter Rabe. (Rabe’s Kill the Boss Goodbye [1956] is one of the best books, with one of the worst titles, I’ve ever read.) The understatement of violence, resulting from Rabe’s modesty of character rather than modesty of experience (which is why Hammett had it down pat and Chandler could never quite make it work), was refined in these books to a laconic hipness I could only admire from afar.

See what he does there?   He puts the emphasis on Rabe.  Yes, Rabe was a huge influence on Westlake, and Westlake went out of his way to see that he was rediscovered.  But I’ve read most of Rabe now, and I can’t point to a single moment in any of those books that seems like a specific influence on the book Westlake was introducing (in fact, I can’t think of a single moment in any Rabe book that reminds me that much of any moment in any Westlake novel).

And yet, he goes out of his way to mention writers who did very directly influence this book, or so I think.  Like I said in the comments section last time, he points one way, while his eyes go another.  He’s playing fair.  He’s giving us the clues, but we’ll have to work for it.

So maybe he got the idea of Parker’s bizarre sexual cycle from Charley–maybe not.  Maybe something of Charley’s obsessive monomaniacal professionalism went into Parker.  Maybe not.  And maybe a story Goodis wrote called Black Pudding was a second influence (along with A Gun For Sale) on the main revenge story of The Hunter.  Actually, I don’t think there’s any maybe about that.


Black Pudding is about an armed robber named Kenneth whose partner has a thing for his gorgeous blonde wife, so while they’re on a job, he knocks Kenneth out with a pistol butt, and leaves him for the cops.  He’s doing five to twenty at San Quentin when he gets the divorce papers from his wife Hilda, who has left him for the partner.  He goes crazy for a while.  After nine years, he gets out, and does he seek revenge?  Nope, he decides to go back home to Philly, and put it all behind him.  But the partner is worried he’ll have second thoughts, so he sends some killers after him to make sure.  Kenneth’s running for his life in Philadelphia, and man that’s a tough town if you’re a Goodis character.

So hiding from the killers, he meets this horribly scarred young woman named Tillie (not just emotionally scarred, but that too).  She also had spousal problems.  So they start liking each other, but she convinces him he needs to get revenge–she felt better after the husband who cut her face and made her an opium addict killed himself.  Revenge is like black pudding, she says.  Kenneth needs to get a taste of it if they’re going to have a future together.  He can’t hide from his anger.  Anyway, if he doesn’t finish them, they’ll finish him.  She wants to help, but he wants her out of it.

So it all works out (unusually, for a Goodis story).  He gets his revenge without bloodying his hands (well, not too much), and he heads back to Tillie, with the emotional closure he needed to start over fresh.   And they all lived happily ever after (after Tillie gets plastic surgery, that is).

It’s a good yarn (Goodis, like Westlake, wrote a huge number of short stories for magazines, but didn’t typically excel at that form–this was a decided exception).   There are no really great bridges in Philadelphia for him to walk over (the memorable George Washington Bridge opening of The  Hunter really did come from Westlake’s own personal experience), but you see how the personal angle of Parker’s revenge–the sexual angle, a more personal type of professional betrayal than Greene wrote about in A Gun For Sale–could come from this.  The idea that you might need to even a score, balance out a sheet, before your mind could stabilize itself.  And the trip across country to get it done.  But Parker would never run away from himself, like Kenneth does.  Parker wouldn’t need a Tillie to tell him about black pudding.

So that leaves the third novel, that came out the year before Black Friday, from a writer who did specialize in heist stories (maybe the first to do so), who also had a bunch of his novels adapted into films.  He was quite popular at the time, but in my humble opinion, Lionel White was never much of a writer.

Well, so what?  Any writer can have good ideas, which then influence other writers.  White’s main attribute, what brought him fame for a short time, was that he’d worked the crime beat for a newspaper, and he had some actual knowledge of criminals, which gave his work an extra touch of verisimilitude. But I’ve read several books of his, and at his very best–he’s just a bit more than mediocre.  What the hell, he’s dead, the truth can’t hurt him now.

I’ve already talked about The Snatchers.  I had to, because Westlake cited it as an indirect inspiration for the third Dortmunder novel, Jimmy The Kid.  He was fascinated by the fact that some French hoodlums had used that book as a blueprint to do a real kidnapping.  I read it to see if Westlake had borrowed directly from it.  He hadn’t.  For that book.  But in reading it, probably long before he wrote Jimmy The Kid, he would have seen yet another character whose potential he might have felt was underutilized in the book.

Pearl thought, God, he isn’t really human.  He’s like a lean tawny cat, crouched and waiting.

His leather spare face was ascetic in its immobility, and the prematurely white hair, with its cowlick over one eye, lent him the contradictory look of a little boy who had suddenly grown too old.  He had charm, but it was a dangerous sort of charm.  The mediocrity of his lean average-sized body was belided by the dynamic quality of his astringent personality.

That’s a description of Cal Dent, and it does sound a lot like Charley, doesn’t it? Probably not a coincidence.  Goodis was not above the odd bit of honest theft himself, but Charley’s a much more compelling and complex character than any of White’s heisters (and a fair bet that White had lifted a few things from Goodis before now).  Still, White did touch on something there–the non-human quality. The comparison with a beast of prey that keeps coming up, over and over again–and yet never gets developed the way it needs to be.  Still, there are some interesting things about Dent.  Like his attitude towards sex.

Dent had known many such girls, but few as attractive as Pearl.  Cal Dent was that unusual sort of man–the sort that can be found fairly often among ex-cons–who could take his sex or leave it.  Pearl attracted him, it is true, but there was nothing exclusive or personal in the attraction.  To Dent, she was merely another woman, to be had or not to be had, according to the circumstances of the moment.

The man was able to put aside all thoughts of women, irrespective of their proximity, during those times when he was immersed in a job.  The fact that at this time he was in the middle of the biggest thing in his life precluded any possibility in his taking more than a purely academic interest in her.

So that’s what I’ve got so far–and what does it amount to?  Not much.  Have I proven anything?  Not really.  Westlake knew all these books, we can be sure.  He actually went to some pains to make sure we’d be sure.  But are any of these characters Parker?  Not even close.  Did he take anything from these books and stories that he couldn’t have gotten elsewhere?   Probably not.  Could I just be starting at shadows?   Quite possibly.   If I’d read ten times as much crime fiction as I currently have, I’d have read maybe a tenth as much as Westlake did.  I haven’t proven a damned thing.

But my point stands.   As does his.  Parker was always there, long before Westlake started typing the manuscript that became The Hunter.  He says he saw hints of the character in many places, many writers, never quite fully manifested, but waiting–waiting for somebody who could bring him to full fruition.  The statue imminent in the marble.   Waiting.  Waiting for Stark.

There’s one more thing, though.   I think there’ll always be one more thing, but this one really bugs me.  See if it bugs you too.  Westlake mentions, in that Gregg Press intro, a fairly obscure 1950 western novel, The Desperado, by Clifton Adams (who also wrote a few contemporary noir stories for Gold Medal and others).  They made a movie of that too (I get the impression it’s not a very faithful adaptation).   He speaks glowingly of it.  I knew I had to read it, and as luck would have it, it’s evailable.  Five bucks.  What could I lose?

Terrific little book.  Did it influence The Hunter?   Not even a little bit.  I suppose  a character the protagonist meets, an outlaw named Pappy Garrett, does somewhat resemble that character Westlake mentions, the morally neutral man who maybe helps the protagonist out for enigmatic reasons of his own.  So there’s that.  But anyway, it was a brilliant story of  how a young man from a decent background becomes an outlaw himself.

It reminded me a whole hell of a lot of Charles Willeford’s 1971 work The Hombre From Sonora, aka The Difference.  Probably because Willeford pretty directly copied Adams’ story, as he was sometimes known to do (if you have the time, compare his Wild Wives with the Robert Mitchum vehicle, Where Danger Lives, with a story by Leo Rosten).  Do I know of a more original writer than Willeford?  Not hardly.  Did that mean he was above taking a story he liked and doing his own thing with it?  I’m not sure any professional writer is above that. Vladimir Nabokov wasn’t above that.

Originality matters, but what is originality?   Having an idea first?   Any schmo can have an idea.  Being the first to bring out the full potential in that idea? That’s more like it.  And what Donald E. Westlake, writing as Richard Stark, did with the ideas he’d gathered from many a quaint and curious volume of forgotten lore, mingled with his own personal experiences and perceptions, was to make all the previous incarnations seem quaint and curious by comparison.  Parker is far more than the sum of his parts, and that’s why he’s come to overshadow all his influences, whatever they may be.

But why did I bring up The Desperado?   Why did Westlake?   Remember what I said about how he points one way, but his eyes go another?   He also mentions the sequel to that book–A Noose For The Desperado.  I read that one too.  It seemed prudent to do so.  He was on the money, as usual–it’s an inferior sequel, that tries to resolve the protagonist’s conflicts, and somehow diminishes him in the process.

Few and far between are the writers who can follow a book like The Hunter with The Man With the Getaway Face.  And another twenty-two brilliant books after that.  The protagonist of Adams’ book was all used up by the end of the first story, and there was no reason to bring him back.  But even so, there’s a passage very early in it that made the hairs on the back of my neck stand up on end. Maybe it did the same for Westlake as well.  You tell me.

The hero, as I said, is a young man from a respectable background, son of a small Texas rancher, who was drawn into the life of a gunman by the oppression that followed the end of the Civil War (obviously he’s not much concerned with the oppression that came before the Civil War, but that’s the western genre for you).

As the second book begins, he’s killed a few too many men, he’s on the run from the law,  and he’s taken refuge in a small border town in Arizona.  A Mexican girl gives him a shave and a haircut, and he looks at himself in a mirror for the first time in a while.   Looks into his own eyes.

I studied those eyes carefully because they reminded me of some other eyes I had seen, but I couldn’t place them at first.

They had a quick look about them, even when they weren’t moving.  They didn’t seem to focus completely on anything.

Then I remembered one time when I was just a sprout in Texas.  I had been hunting and the dogs had jumped a wolf near the arroyo on our place, and after a long chase they had cornered him in the bend of a dry wash.  As I came up to where the dogs were barking I could see the wolf snarling and snapping at them, but all the time those eyes of his were casting around to find a way to get out of there.

And he did get out, finally.  He was a big gray lobo, as vicious as they come. He ripped the throat of one of my dogs and blasted his way out and disappeared down the arroyo.  But I heard later that another pack of dogs caught him and killed him.

Nobody runs forever.   But The Hunter will.

You want to see how far it’s run to date?   Check this out.


Filed under Donald Westlake novels, Parker Novels, Richard Stark