Tuesday, October 22, 2013

Starktober 20: Butcher's Moon

If noir can be epic, Butcher's Moon is its The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly. The culmination of all of Stark's previous novels -- most obviously a direct sequel to Slayground, but with strong connections to The Hunter, The Score, Plunder Squad, and several more -- Butcher's Moon shows what Parker is capable of when something finally gets him angry, and what Stark can do when he has a canvas twice as long as the average Parker novel and a cast packed full of names from earlier in the series.

Back in The Hunter, that first Parker novel -- published twelve years before Butcher's Moon, and about that long ago in the internal chronology of the series -- Parker demanded "his money" back from the mob, with his usual emphasis on bullheadedness over finesse, after one of their men stole from and nearly killed him. He got the money back and lost it, and two books later, in The Outfit, pulled the trigger on his threat to the mob: that he'd tell all of his fellow heisters about his war, and encourage them to hit any mob operation they wanted to, secure in knowing that it would all be blamed on Parker. He didn't coordinate attacks on the mob: he just told his compatriots to have at it if they wanted to, and they did.

Butcher's Moon has a similar threat but a much more operatic finale; it's another example of Stark re-using similar plots and set-ups, over and over again, as if to work out every possible permutation, to examine how Parker reacts in every situation he could be put into. In Slayground, Parker had to leave behind the take from an armored-car heist in the Fun Island amusement park in a small city Stark didn't bother to name. Parker only just got out of that park alive himself -- he was being hunted by the local mob boss, Adolf Lozini, with dozens of his men -- but he expected to come back for the seventy-three thousand dollars he left behind.

(The Parker novels, by the way, have a very American and very noirish particularity about specific sums of money, as part of Stark's general emphasis on details. Every job brings in a specific sum of money, which has to be divided in a particular way among the men -- some to the finger, so much back to the man financing the job, generally even shares to the heisters after that -- and those precise sums are lingered over and described carefully, down to the heisters' disdain for coins and sometimes for small bills. And, of course, disputes over that split are what often lead to problems before, during, or after a job.)

Parker has been on a streak of bad luck, as he puts it: a number of jobs over the past few years have worked out badly, with no or very little reward. Perhaps that's luck, or perhaps that's changing times -- Stark never says so explicitly, but he's clear that there are fewer opportunities for big heists: all payrolls are by check, so there aren't the large piles of cash sitting around in armored cars and payroll departments and branch offices that there used to be. Another thing Stark doesn't say outright is that the mob still operates entirely in cash, and so they are the only ones left with those large piles of money, sitting provocatively available. None of the heisters have put two and two together by the end of Butcher's Moon, but Stark paints a picture of a world where the uneasy truce between organized and disorganized crime could break down entirely: the only good big jobs left could well be knocking over mob operations.

Alan Grofield, one of the major supporting characters of the series and the star of four of his own books, was part of that Slayground heist -- he ended up in the hospital, from which he was propelled into the events of his own novel The Blackbird -- and he's been having a bad streak of his own. His last novel, Lemons Never Lie, is very parallel to the roughly contemporary Parker novel, Plunder Squad: both men traveling at haste around the country, dealing with a murderous loose end from a prior job and trying to get into a new profitable job, both men making it out at the end with their skin intact but the bad-luck streak equally intact.

So Parker comes to Grofield and proposes that they go and get their seventy-three thousand dollars back. They both travel to the city of Tyler -- newly named in this novel -- somewhere in the Old Northwest (no further east than Ohio, but not far from there), to get back into Fun Land and retrieve the money. They don't find it, of course -- someone else got to it before them, in the two years since the caper.

Most men would shrug and move on, but Parker is not most men. He's incapable of giving up on money he considers his, as seen in The Hunter and The Outfit, even when giving up would be vastly better and easier for him. So he contacts Lozini -- the man in charge of the only other people who knew the money was there -- and demands his money, just as he contacted Bronson with a similar demand back in The Hunter. And Lozini, at first, is just as willing to pay Parker off as Bronson was: not at all.

But Parker can cause all kinds of trouble to Lozini's operations, particularly on the eve of the upcoming mayoral elections, where a well-funded reform candidate just might upset the man who's been in Lozini's pocket for years. And the stress of Parker's arrival brings other things into the light: Lozini's grip on the city of Tyler has gotten loose in the last few years, and at least one of his lieutenants has gotten ambitious and greedy, ready to depose Lozini and take over himself. This might be the last chance Lozini has to fight back and reclaim his position, and he realizes that -- at the same time that he realizes that he doesn't know which of his lieutenants is preparing his back for the knife.

So Lozini may want to work with Parker to smoke out the traitor. And Parker may be willing to do that to get his money. But then, as usual in a Parker novel, everything goes to hell and all plans are smashed. The players and their loyalties are scrambled, Grofield is captured and nearly killed, and Parker seems to have no leverage left. But Parker always has leverage, even if all he has to work with is the power of his own personality and will. And so he calls in some friends to provide leverage, to get a big score for them and then a big hit for Parker:
"Then you come with me," Parker said. "The twelve of us hit Buenadella's house and get Grofield out of there. And if they moved him somewhere, we find out where and go hit that place." He checked off names on his fingers, saying, "And we make them dead. Buenadella. Calesian. Dulare."

His intensity had startled them a little. Nobody said anything until Handy McKay, speaking very quietly, said, "That's not like you."

What kind of shit was this? Parker had expected a back-up from Handy, not questions. He said, "What's not like me?"

"A couple things," Handy said. "For one, to go to all this trouble for someone else. Grofield, me, anybody. We all of us here know we got to take care of ourselves. We're not the Travelers Aid Society. You, too. And the same with Grofield. What happens to him is up to him."

"Not when they send him to me piece by piece," Parker said. "If they kill him, that's one thing. If they turn him over to the law, get him sent up, that's his lookout. But these bastards rang me in on it."

Handy spread his hands, letting that point go. "The other thing," he said, "is revenge. I've never seen you do anything but play the hand you were dealt. Now all of a sudden you want a bunch of people dead."

Parker got to his feet. He'd been patient a long time, he'd explained things over and over, and now he was getting itchy. Enough was enough. "I don't care," he said." "I don't care if it's like me or not. These people nailed my foot to the floor, I'm going around in circles, I'm not getting anywhere. When was it like me to take lumps and just walk away? I'd like to burn this city to the ground, I'd like to empty it right out to the basements. And I don't want to talk about it any more, I want to do it. You're in, Handy, or you're out. I told you the setup, I told you what I want, I told you what you'll get for it. Give me a yes or a no."

Butcher's Moon is as big and expansive and all-encompassing as any noir or crime novel could ever be, working a territory defined not just by the prior Parker novels and other heist books, but the crooked-town novel from Red Harvest on and the mob novel in the vein of The Godfather. Stark takes everything he's built and learned and created in the prior fifteen Parker novels and pushes it all into the middle of the table, into one gigantic gamble that pays off, for Stark and the reader, just as well as it pays off for Parker.

Stark ended the Parker series after this book -- for two decades -- and it's clear why: he'd pushed the form as far as it could go, and threw in everything he could think of. Writing another caper novel after Butcher's Moon would have been going backwards, and Stark, like Parker, was a finely-tooled machine that would only go forward. This is easily the best book in a stellar series, though no one should read it first -- if you're strapped for time, read Slayground and Butcher's Moon together, but even the first sixteen Parker novels should take less reading time, and be vastly more entertaining, than some doorstop bestseller.

Starktober Introduction and Index

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