Friday, May 18, 2012

More Parker Novels by Richard Stark (Donald E. Westlake)

While on vacation I also caught up on quite a few of the Parker novels by Donald Westlake (writing under his pen name, Richard Stark).  Since they tend to clock in under two hundred pages they’re excellent travel material, and their potboiler construction makes them effective there as well.  I’ve previously talked about The Hunter, where Parker made his debut, and with the new Kindle editions of the entire Parker oeuvre I managed to knock out The Mourner, The Score, The Jugger, The Seventh, The Handle, The Rare Coin Score, and The Green Eagle Score.

If I want to finish the series, that leaves only fourteen more to go.  What can I say, Westlake really liked to write.

Some of these stories are more effective than others, but they are all at least pretty good.  I probably liked The Mourner and The Seventh best out of the bunch, but The Jugger also had some very nice bits, and the rest were by no means terrible.  Although I do have to say that some of them do have some slow parts.
I really appreciate the effort that Westlake went through to try to mix up the formula from time to time, although for dramatic purposes they do tend to have common elements.  In no case does the proposed crime go off without a hitch, since then there would be no particular point in the story.  The most common theme introduces Parker going to a meeting where someone suggests doing a crime.  Parker’s not sure about the job or about one or more of his co-conspirators, but he agrees to do it anyway either because he needs the money or (one assumes) because of some sort of professional pride.  Then the job is executed, and either fate intervenes or someone flakes out and Parker has to try to escape with the loot, his freedom, and his life.  This isn’t to say it always happens that way; The Seventh takes place after the job has already taken place, and The Jugger doesn’t involve a crime at all (or at least not a typical sort).

I mentioned in my last review that Parker is basically a private eye who works on the wrong side of the law; he’s got his own idiosyncratic code of conduct and essentially no other moral values.  He’s kind of an asshole, isn’t good at making small talk, and has a completely alien perspective on most human interactions.  In one of the books he suspects he’s being followed and confronts the guy, who stupidly pulls a knife.  Parker immediately kills this sucker with his bare hands and later finds out he was working for the guy who Parker was on his way to meet up with to ensure he made it to the meeting.  Everyone is horrified by this but Parker points out that you shouldn’t pull knives on people unless you mean it.  Then he sits down and waits for the sales pitch.  He's also open to robbing just about anyone - coin collectors, an illegal casino, an Air Force Base, an embassy, and even an entire town.  If you can make a pitch that it's possible, he'll at least listen.

In one setup he’s told by an associate of his that a wannabe amateur criminal has hit on the perfect heist.  Parker’s not so sure about this, and then asks if maybe the job checks out but the amateur doesn’t, does the associate have any strong feelings that they shouldn’t kill him afterwards.  As it turns out he’s dating the associate’s ex-wife and it might upset her if they get rid of this guy.  Parker gently feels out the guy on how he feels about his ex-wife, which sort of shocks the associate – Parker then points out that he wouldn’t ask the associate to kill the mother of his child.  The associate, in relief, states that he thought Parker might suggest bumping off the kid too.  “I didn’t think you’d go for it”, says Parker.  That’s a pretty dark joke for the reader but I’m not 100% sure that Parker’s kidding, he’s never shown to have much of a sense of humor whatsoever.  On another occasion he’s feeling out someone to see if he needs to kill her or not, and after deciding not to explains as much to her.  In relief, she asks him if he kills only in self defense; he responds that he’ll only kill if “it’s the only way to get what I want.”  Which of course isn’t the same thing at all.

In fact if these books have a weak spot it’s in this sort of contradiction in Parker’s character.  We’re told that he lives a pretty sybaritic lifestyle when he’s off the job, but then slows down and emotionally cools off as his funds run low and he thinks about going back to work.  However, we’re never really shown that particular aspect of his and it seems kind of hard to believe based on what we do see.  I guess he likes swimming and he does pick up rather a lot of women off the clock, but that’s about it.  He’s also a little bit weird about keeping his word – he’ll pretty much always do it, but sometimes he’ll just know that someone’s going to cross him and he’ll take them out preemptively.  He’s never wrong about this, so Westlake doesn’t have to deal with that particular complication of oathbreaking.  In fact, he basically just keeps his word to people he intends to work with again in the future, maybe meaning he’s playing some sort of game theoretic strategy without really understanding it himself.

These books are actually pretty funny, in a dark, dark way.  A lot of the humor comes from just following Parker around and knowing what he’s capable of doing when other characters don’t necessarily have that luxury.  We know that it’s suicidally insane to try to cross Parker or try to take something away from him, but other people don’t necessarily know that, even if they suspect he’s a pretty hard guy.  In fact they generally are making pretty reasonable assumptions about what would be an appropriate response to whatever it is they plan to do.  Imagine their surprise when Parker will take his beef with them far, far beyond what any reasonable person would expect.  Chapters from the perspective of these chumps are some of the highlights of the novels, who include such various foils as a Communist secret agent, a coin collector, and a psychoanalyst.  All of these folks assume that crime is easy and Parker is an idiot, and all end up pretty spectacularly screwed.

This isn’t to say that it always works out well for Parker; he (obviously) never gets killed and hasn’t been caught by the law since the first novel in the series, but that’s not to say that he always gets away with the score.  He occasionally doesn’t get anything, and more often than not gets less than what he was expecting for one reason or another.  In fact karma tends to bite him on the ass more than not, which I’m not sure isn’t Westlake putting the screws to him just a little bit for being such a heinous person.  In fact, in The Jugger, he isn’t trying to commit any crimes and in fact accomplishes some justice, only to end up very badly off in the end.  Try to do something nice, Parker, see where it gets you.  I’m not sure that these are great literature, but they demonstrate Westlake at his craftsman’s best, accomplishing what he can.  Just like Parker himself.

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