Thursday, October 31, 2013

Starktober Lagniappe: Jimmy the Kid

Starktober has been dark and serious all month, but Halloween is a day for mischief and hijinks and things that aren't real -- and so we turn today to the Parker novel Child Heist, which is only slightly handicapped by not existing.

Donald Westlake was Richard Stark some of the time, but, as the 1960s turned into the '70s, he was Stark less and less each year as his funny caper novels under his own name -- particularly the new series featuring hapless robber Dortmunder, a sad-sack Bizarro-world version of Parker -- gained Westlake greater fame and money and attention as himself. In 1974, the last Parker novel for nearly a quart-century would be published. And so would Jimmy the Kid, the novel in which Dortmunder and his gang try to use the not-otherwise-existing Stark novel Child Heist as a blueprint for their own job.

Jimmy the Kid includes samples of Child Heist -- entire chapters, in some places -- but Child Heist is not quite pure Parker. The laconic tone is there, but the descriptions are slightly more florid and detailed than a real Stark novel would have allowed, and the style is subtly off, twisted just a bit to function closer to a parody of Stark than a true representation. The crime itself also is unbelievable as a Parker job: sure, he was always good at people, but who would think that he'd pull a kidnapping, especially of as unpredictable a thing as a child? Add the fact that apparently the target was chosen from surveillance rather than a finger, and you have a job that's utterly unlike Parker: sure, all of his jobs have problems, but this job has all of the wrong problems.

But that's just fine, because Jimmy the Kid has all of the right Dortmunder problems. Dortmunder is also a guy who organizes robberies, though he operates on a smaller scale than Parker: a cheap walkup in New York rather than resort hotels, a girlfriend who works in a grocery store rather than a succession of brittle disposable dames, burglaries rather than heists. He's also vastly less likely than Parker to carry a gun, let alone use it -- and that's good, because if Dortmunder did try to fire a gun, he'd probably shoot himself in the foot. Dortmunder keeps trying to tackle big jobs -- before this novel, he made an attempt on a fabulously valuable gem and hijacked an entire bank -- but they never quite work out. If Parker always gets out on the other side of a crime, and usually manages to get at least some money out of the deal, Dortmunder always gets left behind, safe from the cops but with the money traveling at high speed in some other direction.

Dortmunder, also very unlike Parker, works with the same group of people on his big jobs -- though he spends the first quarter of this book blaming Andy Kelp, the most animated and optimistic of the bunch, for his bad luck. (Which is understandable, but untrue: Dortmunder is and must be the source of all of his own luck; he's one of nature's own magnets for misfortune.) Jimmy the Kid is early enough in the series that they haven't all appeared yet, but there's still Kelp, the phlegmatic driver (and unstoppable describer of his driving routes) Murch, and the even grumpier Murch's Mom.

So Kelp, the sunny Grofield to Dortmunder's saturnine Parker, read Child Heist while briefly in jail upstate -- another way the Dortmunder books are unlike the Parker books is the treatment of prison and police as an inconvenience and a bother rather than as a danger and a threat -- and immediately decided that Stark's stripped-down, factual, no-nonsense style made that book the perfect blueprint for a real heist. Eventually, he convinced the others, and they started to follow the plot of Child Heist to identify, snatch, and ransom their own rich New Jersey kid.

Of course it doesn't work out the way they expected, or the way it is in the book. (Though Child Heist must be a snoozer of a Parker novel, since it seems to focus on a hugely atypical job for Parker, in which everything went right.) The boy they pick to kidnap, just for one, is entirely unlike what the book prepared them for.

Jimmy the Kid is one of the earlier, shorter Dortmunder books, when Westlake was just beginning to stretch out and see how funny he could be. Jimmy is plenty funny, certainly, but Westlake could do even better than this, in books like the sublime Drowned Hopes, a masterpiece of frustration and failure. But Jimmy is the best example of how Dortmunder differs from Parker, an object lesson in how a great writer can take the same material and turn it into either drama or farce. And so it's the most interesting Dortmunder book for Stark fans, the one that can lead from the darkness of Parker to the sunniness of Brothers Keepers and Help I Am Being Held Prisoner.

(Of course, even during the great Stark drought, Westlake wrote dark books like Kahawa and the masterpiece The Ax. But that's a different story yet again.)

Starktober Introduction and Index

Wednesday, October 30, 2013

Starktober 28: Dirty Money

This is not the end of Parker's story.

Oh, sure, Dirty Money was the last book Richard Stark published -- it could hardly be otherwise, since his alter ego, Donald Westlake, died suddenly soon after this book came out. But Parker ends this novel the way he ends every one of his books: having just finished dealing with one tough situation, and looking forward to the next one.

There always will be a next one, even if Westlake/Stark isn't able to tell us about them. Somewhere out there, there's an unguarded fur warehouse, or a shipment of worn $20 bills heading to a furnace, or a pile of bearer bonds -- something very valuable, not guarded as well as it should be, and ripe for the picking. And Parker is casing that job, as he will be casing the next one, and the one after that.

There will be problems along the way: unreliable compatriots, and foolhardy guards, and bad luck, and fingers who don't know to leave the details to professionals. There will be shots fired, and sudden silent violence in dark rooms. There will be money lost, money discovered by the police, money left behind. There will be cars stolen, tires shot out, plates swapped. There will be fake IDs, more difficult and complicated each decade. There will be long trips around the country, to meet or hit or relax. There will be men who are worth working with, and men who aren't. There will be men who survive, and men who don't. There will be plans that can't fail, and plans that barely have a chance to succeed. And Parker will be stalking calmly through all of those problems, focused, as he always is, on getting the job done with the minimum of fuss and getting out the other side with his rightful share of the money.

And, of course, both "minimum of fuss" and "his rightful share" are very subject to local variation.

So Dirty Money finished up the trilogy of novels that were the last thing "Richard Stark" wrote: beginning about a day after the end of Ask the Parrot and mostly taking place over the next week. Parker has gotten away from the armored-car heist of Nobody Runs Forever, after the use of Carl-Gustaf anti-tank weapons in that job triggered a massive manhunt and omnipresent police roadblocks in western Massachusetts. He even did a smaller job along the way, during Ask the Parrot, and made it back home to the northwestern corner of New Jersey with a duffel bag full of money and a stolen car. The former gets stashed in bits and pieces around the surrounding houses, in places only Parker knows about. The latter get dropped deep into a lake.

But all of Parker's ID is burned; he can't even drive a car too far from home. And one of his partners from the armored-car job, Dalesia, was captured by the police and then escaped -- leaving Parker unsure whether he'd told the cops where the money was, or about Parker and his other partner, McWhitney. And Parker and McWhitney would sure like to find a way to get that money out -- even though the roadblocks are still up, less than two weeks after the heist. And the surviving bounty hunter from Nobody Runs Forever is still lurking around, causing trouble until her bounty from a dead man comes in. And the FBI make a quick call on Parker's girl Claire's house, following up on a call Dalesia made there before the heist.

So Parker should go somewhere else -- somewhere safe -- and get a new name, and wait for the heat to die down. Instead he goes, with Claire, right into the center of that police search, trusting in the camouflage of a "leaf peeping" couple to let him check on the money. And that was probably a bad idea, but Parker's bad ideas tend to work out for him in the end -- though not before a lot of commotion and tension and violence and danger.

Dirty Money could have led to another era of Parker, if Westlake had survived. He gets his new ID over the course of the book, but works -- deliberately -- with a minor mob operation to get it. Would Parker's next story involve that handle he let the mob get on him? Would Parker agree to some organized-crime job to square that debt? Or would that just lead to more trouble and complications?

We can never know what happens next. But we do have the twenty-four Parker novels that Stark did write. And those still are the strongest sustained accomplishment in American crime fiction of the 20th century: a forty-six year span of excellent novels about a great character. And that is definitely a lot.

(I also read and reviewed Dirty Money here when it was originally published in 2008, just a couple of months before Donald Westlake's untimely death on New Year's Eve.)

Postscript: This is the last Stark novel, but Starktober isn't quite over yet. Come back tomorrow for a bit of lagniappe, and then an afterword/wrap-up on Friday.

Starktober Introduction and Index 

Tuesday, October 29, 2013

Starktober 27: Ask the Parrot

Ask the Parrot begins only a minute or two after Nobody Runs Forever ends; Parker is climbing a slope behind a diner, having just learned that the name he's using -- that he just used, for that meal -- is being broadcast widely and tied to the robbery he and two compatriots just committed. There's a bad drawing of his face circulating; people might have to look twice at it to tie it to him, but a little attention could easily blow him up. He's stuck in the middle of countryside, a patch of small towns on the Massachusetts-New York border, filled with roadblocks without any ID to get him through. And the money he pocketed for immediate expenses from that robbery is all new bills, with numbers recorded and tracked. A helicopter is methodically searching nearby, and trackers are starting to come up that hill after him.

So what does he do? He runs into a guy who has an idea for a heist.

You have to give it to Parker: he's a magnet for trouble, certainly, but he's also a magnet for potentially lucrative robberies. His first choice would be to get far away from western Massachusetts entirely, and come back later to get the stashed money from the armored-car job in Nobody Runs Forever. Second choice would be to find somewhere comfortable to hunker down until the heat dies down. Actually doing another big robbery in the same area probably wouldn't make tenth place.

But Tom Lindahl is a sour hermit with a beef against the race track where he used to work: he blew the whistle on their scheme to launder money to politicians, but, when it was all over, the only thing that changed was that he lost his job, his wife, and his happiness. Four years later, he still knows all of the operating details of that track -- and sneaks back all of the time to keep his keys up-to-date and keep picking at the one open wound of his life. And he has the heist all planned out in his mind, but he knows he'd never have the courage to do it by himself.

Parker, as always, can be convinced to do a big robbery even when it's objectively a bad idea -- that's an underlying theme of a good third of the books in the series -- and, if nothing else, that track is further west than he already is, over the border in New York and closer to the edge of the police cordon. So Parker takes Lindahl's plan, changes it just a little to make it workable, and pushes to do it immediately.

But even the house of a hermit in a sparsely populated landscape is too busy for the heat on Parker; he and Lindahl get dragged into a search party for those mysterious bank robbers, causing one of Lindahl's neighbors to fall into a nearly suicidal depression and two dumb brothers to decide to shake Parker down. And the more people that get mixed up in a Parker heist, the more trouble there is -- and the more of them end up dead.

Parker does get through another heist here, but this is still the middle book of the final Parker trilogy -- coming up is Dirty Money, which sees him deliberately head back into the middle of that police cordon to get at the stolen money.

(I also covered Ask the Parrot here when it was published in 2006.)

Starktober Introduction and Index

Monday, October 28, 2013

Starktober 26: Nobody Runs Forever

All of the Parker novels are connected, at least slightly, to others in the series, with recurring characters and old problems that turn back up. But until Nobody Runs Forever each novel stood completely alone -- sure, Butcher's Moon was a direct sequel to the events of Slayground, and, to a lesser extent, so was The Outfit to The Hunter, but each of those novels began from a new place.

Nobody Runs Forever, on the other hand, begins a trilogy -- the last three Parker novels run into each other directly, telling three closely connected stories with many of the same characters, situations, and locations. But, like so many Parker novels, it begins somewhere else, during a meet in Cincinnati for another job that doesn't come together. (Given how many jobs don't work out, it's mildly surprising that there can be established heisters that Parker doesn't know -- this particular scene has seven men, and multiply that by a few times a year, and you're left with three possibilities: the heisting world is huge, turnover is massive, or Parker already knows everybody he could possibly work with.)

When a job goes wrong from the start, it's usually someone's fault -- someone tipped off the law, or is wearing a wire, or organized the job so badly that it never could work. In those cases -- like this one -- that guy often needs to be taken care of. But that's not Parker's problem -- he didn't bring the problem in this time, so he can walk away. Of course, since that job fell through, he still needs a new job, to replenish his money. And so, on the way out of that failed job, he talks to another guy, Dalesia, about another thing that might be happening -- it didn't look as solid to begin with, but a man's gotta work, right?

So Parker checks out Dalesia's other thing -- a planned robbery in western Massachusetts, hitting the armored cars finishing up a merger of two small local banks, which has a lot of the usual problems. The finger this time is two amateurs, one of them Elaine Langen, the wife of the current head of the bank being swallowed up -- she's sour at the loss of her Daddy's bank, angry at her husband, and just wants to get out of everything. The other is Jake Beckham, a pro by courtesy; he used to run security at that bank (and screw Langen, which they both thought was secret until it was too late), but he went to prison for re-purposing the bank's money for his own use, or for being too dumb to cover his tracks. The big problem is that neither of them is reliable at all, and both of them are the obvious suspects if a job does happen -- particularly since they re-started their affair when Beckham got out of jail.

But that's not Parker's problem, as long as he and Dalesia (and one more guy they bring in along the way) can do the job and get out of the area. If he leaves behind Langen and Beckham, expecting to go on with their lives and hide their new wealth, and bad things happen to them -- well, Parker's not there to give them a lesson in how to live their lives.

The problems don't end there, though: there's a pair of bounty hunters snooping around, looking for the guy who messed up that first meet in Cincinnati -- who they're never going to find above the ground. And there's a female Detective for the state cops, Gwen Reversa, who is too smart for Parker's comfort and is already poking around the lives of Langen and Beckham (who are too dumb and impetuous for Parker's comfort).

And then the aftermath of the job is worse than anyone expected: this is the first Parker novel set fully post-9/11 (though Stark never specifically says that), with a militarized police response, including massive roadblocks and continuous helicopter sweeps. The whole area is locked down tight, and no one is getting out of it with a million and a half in stolen bank money, no matter what.

Even getting out at all might be too much to ask for -- remember that our title this time is the ominous Nobody Runs Forever. But, unlike this book's first readers in 2004, we now can move right on to Ask the Parrot and Dirty Money, to finish up not just this story, but all of Parker's stories. Tomorrow, we'll look at Ask the Parrot.

Starktober Introduction and Index

Reviewing the Mail: Week of 10/26

I do wonder, sometime, if the trade publishing houses are moving to a monthly publicity cycle, instead of focusing on a week's worth of books at a time. I know at the publishing company where I work, the publicity team has definitely been shifting emphasis and tinkering with their kinds of outreach recently.

I wonder that in particular when there's a week -- usually deep in the month, like this past week -- where no review copies reach me. The other possibility, which would make me sad, is that the assembled publicists of Big Publishing have met in conclave and resigned me to the Outer Darkness. But I don't know if that's the case unless several weeks pass without books.

Anyway, in case I just buried the lede there: I didn't get any mail this week, so there's nothing to write about here. See you next time. (Or check my post yesterday for a bunch of books I bought.)

Sunday, October 27, 2013

Incoming Books: October 25

I don't seem to get into decent comic stores -- and I define "decent" as "having a decent proportion of their stock not featuring overmuscled chaps with painted-on clothes striking each other and moaning" -- as often as I used to, so I'm shifting to do most of my comics-shopping online.

(I'm not sure if I like that; I much prefer to browse through physical books when I'm buying physical books. But, as long as I'm working in Hoboken rather than Manhattan, I think this is how it will be.)

So I recently bought a bunch of books from a comics store, and they arrived on Friday. Aside from a My Little Pony collection for one of my sons -- I think I'll leave it vague exactly which of them is a brony -- here's what I got:

A User's Guide to Neglectful Parenting, the new book from Guy Delisle. Delisle is best known for his travelogue books -- Pyongyang, Burma Chronicles, Jerusalem, Shenzhen -- and this seems to be his way of continuing in the autobio vein, possibly with a lighter touch, without having to have a big year-long residence somewhere else to organize the experience.

The Push Man and Other Stories, a great collection of graphic stories from Yoshihiro Tatsumi, originally published in 1969 in fairly obscure Japanese publications. I reviewed this when I first saw it, and I stand by the same opinion: even just from his short stories translated so far (here and in Good-Bye and Abandon the Old in Toyko), Tatsumi is one of the great comics creators and short-story writers of the 20th century.

Sunday Comics, an artifact from a piece of Gahan Wilson's career that I didn't even suspect existed. Wilson did a Sunday-only newspaper strip from 1972 through 1974, and this book collects all of it. From a quick glance, it looks to be made up of four or five unrelated gags for each strip -- perhaps a way to use the jokes that weren't blue enough for Playboy or rude enough for National Lampoon. (On the other hand, there was still a thriving single-panel ecosystem back then, though it was starting to die out -- Wilson may have had many other markets that we wouldn't think of these days.)

The new graphic novel from Kim Deitch, as usual presented as a true story that he's unearthed and researched, is The Amazing, Enlightening And Absolutely True Adventures of Katherine Whaley. Also as usual for Deitch, it's set about a hundred years ago in a fairly disreputable end of the entertainment industry. I expect it will connect to the Waldo stories and the rest of Deitch's work, and that it will be wonderful.

New School is the new major graphic novel from Dash Shaw, creator of Bottomless Belly-Button and BodyWorld, and I don't know much more about it than that. But Shaw is a creator worth following to whatever he's going to do next, so I'm on board.

And last was a big book called The Best of Milligan & McCarthy, which collects Paradax!, Rogan Ghosh, and a bunch of other comics written by Peter Milligan and drawn by Brendan McCarthy. I have fond memories of several of those things, and quite a lot of respect for the work of both of those men (separately and together), so this looked like a nice package to replace things that had sat in longboxes until they were destroyed by my flood two years back.

Starktober 25: Breakout

For all of Richard Stark's laconic style and taut plotting, there's a depth of detail about Parker and his world stated or implied -- usually implied, so Stark can allow his readers to figure it out for themselves. For example: before the great hiatus, Parker and his fellow heisters were finding it harder and harder to find jobs with a large amount of money in one place. And, clearly, the twenty years in between only made that worse -- not only are there no payrolls, but even banks and stores don't have the piles of cash that they used to.

But there are still valuables: paintings, jewels, gold plumbing fittings. And so Parker's later adventures increasingly see him turning to stealing valuable things instead of money. That always adds additional complications, of course -- money you can just spend, but valuables need to have a buyer to launder them back into society, and that's one more way for a job to go wrong or for someone to decide he'd rather not split the take. In the first dozen or so novels, Parker avoided non-cash jobs whenever he could, but, as times change, men must change with them or perish.

And if we know only one thing about Parker, it's that he's not going to simply perish.

But that's all undercurrent; Parker never talks about things like that, and Stark doesn't dwell on the details of his world. So there's a jewel heist in Breakout, but it's almost beside the point: Breakout is a novel about escape. In the twenty prior books in the series, the only time Parker has been in police custody more than momentarily was a California prison farm, as part of the backstory of The Hunter. Perhaps Stark realized that string of good luck was unrealistic, or perhaps he just thought this was one more complication he could throw at Parker. Either way, Breakout begins with a heist going wrong, and Parker is behind bars in a local jail -- in an unnamed city in a flat, square Midwestern state -- within ten pages. (Again, Stark doesn't waste time or space -- every word is precisely chosen, and events move forward at speed.)

Parker then spends the rest of the novel breaking out -- three of the novel's four sections (all but the second, the obligatory part from other points of view) involve Stark trying to get someone out of somewhere. First, he has to get himself out of prison. Later, three men need to get out of another heist gone wrong -- gone wrong in a new and dangerous way Stark hadn't used before. And then, at last, Stark has to get someone else out of police custody, before he can finally get out of that flat, bland state himself and get back to his regular existence.

Stark also nods in the direction of racial tensions, this time out: in prison, the color of your skin is more important than it is outside -- or, perhaps, just more obviously a sorting mechanism. So the fact that one of Parker's string in that jail is black is notable -- to the rest of the prisoners, to the jailers, to the job they immediately dive into on the outside to get some money to get away. But once things start going wrong -- and it wouldn't be a Parker novel if a lot of things didn't go badly wrong very quickly -- how reliable or compromised a man is is much more important than his race. And Parker has made a long career of ignoring human dimensions as long as they don't impinge on the current job -- it's what he does best, even more than violence.

Starktober Introduction and Index

Saturday, October 26, 2013

Starktober 24: Firebreak

As Terry Treachout notes in his introduction, Firebreak has the best first line of any Parker novel, and one of the very best of all time: "When the phone rang, Parker was in the garage, killing a man." Stark did many things well, but one of the most important was knowing exactly how to grip the reader from the beginning and not let go.

Some years ago, somewhere else, I noted that the late Parker novels were set in small, forgotten industrial cities, places where it might as well have been still the '60s and where Parker could still operate as if it was. I implied that, though wonderful and gripping, the modern stretch of Parker books was essentially an extended period piece.

I was wrong.

In ways small and large, Firebreak is both entirely of its time -- the tech-bust days of early 2001 -- and clearly and deeply tied to the previous Parker novels. This is the book where Stark squares the circle, stating almost baldly that 1969's The Sour Lemon Score happened about a decade before this novel about the theft of an Internet billionaire's secret stash of stolen Old Masters. (One minor character had three young children in Sour Lemon; the oldest was then ten. They're all in college in Firebreak.)

Firebreak also sees Parker incorporate a computer expert into a string for the first time, and that expert, Larry Lloyd, is almost completely non-embarrassing a decade later, in sharp distinction to most of the hackers and crackers that suddenly infested mystery fiction and movies around the turn of the millennium. And when Lloyd is embarrassing, it's entirely because he's new to the heisting life, alternately overeager and overemotional, and the reader wonders alongside Parker if he's going to make it to the end of the job or not.

As usual with Parker, that job isn't as discrete and contained as he'd like it to be: Lloyd is on parole, for attempted murder on the partner who stole his tech start-up. The other two men in the string are under time pressure; they need to pay off two other former partners to let the latter skip their own parole on an arrest from the prior attempt to rob that Internet billionaire. And Parker still has those killers on his back trail, which lead him through a mob-fronted company in Bayonne, New Jersey before leading back to some thought-dead old enemies from the Sour Lemon days.

But it wouldn't be a Parker job without complications and last-minute changes to the plan. Parker and his string do make it to that billionaire's secret stash of paintings, in a rural hunting lodge near the Canadian border. Then, they just have to evade the best security a billionaire can buy, plus the attention of several kinds of Feds, to get their priceless cargo away safely and turn it into cash.

How do they do it? Brilliantly.

Starktober Introduction and Index

Friday, October 25, 2013

Starktober 23: Flashfire

Flashfire has the longest sustained string of larceny and mayhem in any Parker novel, and it's all in the service of doing something else. This is the story of the job Parker didn't do, and all of the jobs he committed on the way to not doing it, after he told his partners to count him out.

It starts, like all of the later run of Parker books, at a moment of violence and tension. This time out, it's during a bank robbery somewhere in the Midwest, with three guys Parker has never worked with before. They had a big job lined up, but did this "little" one to test him out -- and now they like what they saw.

But Parker doesn't like the job they describe: a flashy assault on a well-guarded target, in a place impossible to escape from, to get loot that will be hard to dispose of. He doesn't do jobs for the thrill or the challenge, but for the money, and he has no confidence that this one would work out profitably. (Or, at least, that's what he tells himself: his actions in this book tend to argue otherwise: that he likes the money, but needs the control and the respect and the danger as much or more.)

Those three guys, in their turn, don't like Parker's answer, but they consider themselves professionals: they'll let Parker go, and give him his cut from this heist (which they need to fund the Big One) in six months, when the Big One is over. They'll keep tabs on him, so he can't mess up that job, but they don't want to hurt him. They're real gentlemen, they think.

Parker disagrees, and sets off on that cold-blooded rampage across the South, stealing guns and money and cars and more money, all to build up an identity just so he can be in place to catch them after that Big Job, kill them, and take all their money. (And, once again, we see that Parker has an idiosyncratic sense of what needs to be done: he burns through as much money as this Big Job -- which he has already turned down because it's too risky -- could possibly make him, particularly since he doesn't have the fence lined up the way his new enemies do.)

It's worse than that, actually: Parker's bad luck puts a new enemy on his back trail, one who sends killers against him in this book and afterward. He needed a new identity for his plan, and bought one -- but went to pick up that identity on the day some other, even more security-conscious man did as well, and came upon the attempted murder of the creator of that identity. (And, yes that is an echo of The Man With the Getaway Face -- one skilled man, providing a service for men outside the law, is killed and that murder puts killers on Parker's trail. It seems to be an occupational hazard.)

Still, it all seems to work: Parker ends up in Miami Beach as Daniel Parmitt, an idle, amiable man from Texas oil money, looking for a place to live. And the identity is strong enough to sustain a bit of attention -- though not too much, if the cops ever get involved. He even meets a local real estate agent, Leslie Mackenzie, who might be able to help him. And he gimmicks up the other heisters' safehouse to be ready for his play to take the loot -- jewels from a charity auction, appraised at twelve million -- once they've done the difficult part.

That's before the killers behind Parker catch up, and only luck -- good, this time, for once -- puts him the hospital instead of the morgue. And he's left with the tatters of a plan and only a few days left, with only that civilian real estate agent and his own weakened body to count on.

Does Parker make it out of Palm Beach with the jewels? And what will he do about those killers who keep coming up behind him? For the first answer, you'll have to read Flashfire. For the second, come back tomorrow for Firebreak.

Starktober Introduction and Index

Thursday, October 24, 2013

Starktober 22: Backflash

Comeback proved that Parker was back, after his long hiatus. And then, a year later, Backflash showed that he wasn't alone: many of his former associates and fellow heisters were still on the job, not a step slower or a bit less ruthless than they were the last time we saw them. So the grumpy Sternberg, who lives in London between jobs in the US, returns here to impersonate an even grumpier state assemblyman. And the wrestler Wycza is back to provide muscle, though he seems to have swapped some DNA with Dortmunder's friend Tiny Bulcher over the past two decades. Also back are Carlow, part of the gang in Butcher's Moon, and Noelle Braselle, who was a distraction in Plunder Squad but has quietly gotten a feminist upgrade since then, and is now an equal member of the crew.

The job this time is one of Parker's least favorite places: a boat. It's another casino -- like The Handle -- but this one is completely aboveboard, run by the state of New York for an easy revenue increase and plying its slow way up and down the Hudson every evening from Albany to Poughkeepsie and back. Because of political infighting, all of the gambling activities have to be paid for by cash, which means a rich money room by the end of each trip. As usual, Parker doesn't like it up until he figures out a way to do the job, and then he stops complaining.

The finger is another amateur with obscure motives, named Cathman, a former mid-level Albany government functionary who hated and fought against legalizing gambling, and whose post-retirement consulting business seems to be dying on the vine. Parker believes Cathman wants to see the robbery happen to give bad press to the casino boat, and to save his own financial hide -- but unreliable fingers are never that simple in a Parker novel.

And, like Comeback before it, this is a job that should be secret but isn't -- word gets out two separate ways to the kind of men who think a big robbery is a fine excuse for killing a few people and taking their hard-stolen money. So the job itself goes well -- a rarity, in a Parker novel -- but the novel begins in the aftermath of one bad job, and the aftermath of this one is messy for Parker, as well, with that finger showing exactly how unreliable he is and those two outsiders each making their separate play for the money. 

It's all in a day's work for Parker, though -- this is what he does. He thinks through all of the things that can go wrong on a job, and works out ways to avoid or minimize or control them, and then rolls out his plan. The true test of a consummate professional is how he deals with stress, after all.

Oh, and Backflash is the novel where Parker's little hidey-hole in the northwest corner of New Jersey -- where he lives between jobs, and his woman Claire lives all the time -- gets a name: Colliver Pond. I'm half-surprised Stark didn't decide to call that "Monequois," as well -- he hasn't used that name for a while, and I'm beginning to miss it.

Starktober Introduction and Index

Wednesday, October 23, 2013

Starktober 21: Comeback

...and then twenty-three years passed, in the wink of an eye.

Parker skipped Carter and Reagan and the first Bush to land deep in Clinton's second term, as hard and tough and professional as ever, in a world where even payrolls by check were quaint and antique, and the biggest, headline-grabbing thefts would be done by the click of a mouse. But, even in a world of credit cards and, there are still operations that have a lot of cash on hand, and Parker and his fellow heisters specialize in finding those operations and relieving them of that cash.

The first sixteen Parker novels form an unbroken sequence, from The Hunter to Butcher's Moon, telling the story of one man and around sixteen heists (depending on how you count things like The Outfit and the aborted heists in books like Plunder Squad). The Hunter gave Parker a history that was never mentioned again -- that he was just shy of forty in 1962, eighteen years into that career after leaving the Army under bad circumstances (for theft, naturally) in 1944. In those books, Parker aged in real time -- or, rather, those books happened in real time, and Parker was basically the same man all through his early middle age. By Butcher's Moon he was about fifty, and still good at his work and fine for another decade on the job. Over the course of the first sequence we saw plenty of older heisters -- usually safe men or "utility infielders" rather than muscle. And we know that it's more shakiness and mental slowness that trip up an old heister, not age itself -- Joe Sheer got old, got retired, got weak, and got dead in The Jugger, but Handy McCay came back from retirement just fine in Butcher's Moon.

Comeback begins the second sequence of Parker novels, which are linked much like the first set -- they do refer back to the older novels, but without any specific time put to them, as if two years or so passed between Butcher's Moon and Comeback. And Parker is still the same tough character from The Seventh or Slayground, even if Stark doesn't set those past stories into any sequence any more. Parker goes to the heist in Comeback from the New Jersey house where Claire lives -- the one she bought in Deadly Edge -- but she and he are clearly not twenty-plus years older. Parker is still about fifty, let's say, and he'll stay about fifty for the remainder of the series. And he may still have killed a mob boss a decade before, or knocked over an offshore casino, or robbed an entire mining town in North Dakota, even if we suspect the exact details of those heists would have had to be different in the '80s and '90s. It doesn't matter: Parker is the epitome of the big-robbery man, and since there's never a perfect security system, Parker will always be able to find the weakness and get in.

This time around, Parker and his temporary associates are hitting a stadium show: one night of a popular evangelist's traveling revivial, where all of the gate receipts and "love offerings" are in cash. As happens so often with Parker's jobs, the inside man is shaky, a close associate of the Reverend who recently has started feeling guilty about all of that accumulating money, and wants to get it away so it can "do good." Parker wants to be sure he won't fall completely apart after the heist, since he could lead the police to at least one of the gang, but he figures that will be his worst problem.

But, of course, it isn't.

The inside man told his girlfriend about the plan, and she told her brother, who told a couple of friends. And those friends are just a bit too violent, and a bit too dumb, to do anything good with the knowledge.

And one of the heisters, as so often happens, decides that he'd really rather not split the take three ways; it would be so much nicer to walk off with all of it himself.

And the Reverend's own head of security is pretty smart and savvy himself, while the cop in charge of the investigation is nearly as violent, if slightly less dumb, than those outside friends lurking around.

It all adds up to complications, and confusions, with Parker separated from his remaining partners -- and, much more importantly, the money -- one the run at night in a strange city, with several known and unknown groups chasing each other and that money around until someone comes away with it and heads out of town at high speed.

Comeback has a slightly wider canvas than most of the earlier Parker novels, and doesn't entirely close off all of its side-stories by the end -- as usual, the four-part structure widens out to other viewpoints in the third section, and the Reverend and his entourage don't get a satisfying ending, there or later -- but it's very much the same kind of book as the earlier Parker novels. Parker himself is exactly the same sort of man as he was in the '60s and '70s books -- remembering that in Butcher's Moon one important scene hinged on his associates seriously questioning his motives and actions. Parker isn't a cartoon, which is what makes his novels re-readable and deeply enjoyable: he's a real man, with personality quirks and obsessions only partially masked by his cold professional laconic air. And he's capable of doing things that surprise us, things that seem absolutely right for him after that moment of surprise.

So this is not really a comeback -- for that, you have to go away. Parker never went anywhere; we just stopped hearing stories about him for a while. But he was still out there, running jobs, even when Stark wasn't telling those stories. And the new stories are just as crisp and taut and sudden and sharp as they ever were.

Starktober Introduction and Index

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

Monday, October 21, 2013

Starktober 19: Plunder Squad

The '70s were a tough time for Parker -- he only had four novels, and all of them were grinding uphill struggles, where he fought to survive rather than for reward. And Plunder Squad, the third of those four novels, may be the most exhausting for Parker.

Like the Grofield novel Lemons Never Lie, published at about the same time, this is the story of a heister who needs to find his next big score but can't find any job worth doing -- and, at the same time, he's dogged by a man from his past. In both cases, that man isn't really someone done wrong -- Grofield just declined to join a string with Meyer, and Parker gave George Uhl the gift of his life when there was no damn reason to do so -- but both of those men are bull-headed and stupid in the worst ways, unable to see the smart way out right in front of their faces.

Yes, that George Uhl: the man who caused Parker so much trouble in The Sour Lemon Score, who ruined a good job and tried to kill Parker and stole his money, the man Parker didn't kill when he had the chance because Uhl was drugged at the time. And he's only one of the complications in Plunder Squad, a novel that feels like Stark's trying to pile every possible complication and problem on Parker's back, just to see if it's possible to grind that hard bastard down.

From the evidence here, it isn't. You can shoot at Parker, steal his money, ruin his jobs, fail him deliberately or through incompetence. But Parker just keeps going, and comes out the end -- with the money if that's possible, just alive and free if that's all he can salvage. By the end of Plunder Squad, the reader is sure that if there's only one heist worth doing in the entire United States, Parker will find that heist and he will pull it off.

There is a heist in the middle of Plunder Squad -- not the one being organized in the first chapter, before Uhl pops up and takes a shot at Parker, but one along similar lines -- but it goes badly in a dozen ways almost immediately. It was too complicated for its own good -- even more complicated that Parker and the other heisters knew -- and soon some of them are assisting the police with their inquiries and the path to selling the very un-fluid assets they've stolen has completely disappeared.

Stark's plotting has always been complicated and recursive, with a four-part structure that returns regularly to Parker but moves both through other points of view and through flashbacks to give more depth to the story, but Plunder Squad gets even knottier and less predictable, with Uhl dealt with by the half-way mark and the final complication coming almost out of nowhere. Stark had clearly run all of the changes on his basic plot, and now was trying trickier moves -- and they all work in Plunder Squad just as Stark intended.

As the Parker books went on, they picked up a theme, and that theme was Parker's bad luck. On every heist, at least one thing goes wrong, and sometimes -- as in Plunder Squad -- every single thing goes wrong, one after the other, before and during and after the job. But Parker, by definition, is the man who comes out at the end of the complications, who fights through the bad luck and survives. We first met him after the betrayal of his wife, his near-murder, and the loss of all his carefully-saved wealth -- and nothing else that's hit him since those first page of The Hunter have managed to get worse than that.

Starktober Introduction and Index

Reviewing the Mail: Week of 10/19

There's nothing at all special about this week: the middle of a month, the middle of a season, in the last third of the year. But there are always new books being published, which can make any time special if that's a book you particularly want to read.

Below are quick explanations of eleven books that arrived on my doorstep over that past unremarkable week, all of them either just published or coming very soon from some of the finest purveyors of fantastical literature to the North American public. I haven't read any of them -- I'm in the middle of a reading project this month -- but here's what I can tell you about them anyway:

Starhawk is the latest in the series of novels by Jack McDevitt about Priscilla Hutchins, a star pilot in a medium future where the galaxy has just been opened up by FTL travel. This book, however, is a prequel set very early in Hutchins's career: just as she's qualifying as a pilot and the FTL drive is coming into general use. McDevitt has been one of the most dependably entertaining writers in the SF field for three decades now -- particularly if, like me, you have a soft spot for stories about enigmatic alien artifacts. This one is a hardcover from Ace, coming on November 5th.

I might as well continue on talking about November releases from Ace, since I also have three mass-market paperbacks from that line:

Black Heart, the sixth book in an urban fantasy series (called "Black Wings," after the first book, which is nicely convenient as an aide memoire) by Christina Henry about a former agent of Death (as opposed to a former agent of DEATH, the Department of Extraterrestrial Ancestry, Traditions, and Heritage). I gather the heroine is now doing the usual urban-fantasy thing: having a complicated relationship with a devastatingly gorgeous man of some supernatural kind, solving crimes that only she can understand, and probably having a pseudo-law-enforcement job.

Steven L. Kent brings The Clone Assassin, his ninth book from Ace with "clone" in the title. I gather this is called the "Clone Republic" series, and I'm sure Ace's lawyers have made sure those two words are the closest this ever comes to Lucasfilm intellectual property. It looks like a gritty MilSF series, about tough men in tough places making tough choices to defend the soft green fields of Terra, and there's some kind of power struggle going on between the Enlisted Man's Empire and the Unified Authority.

Kris Longknife: Defender is also the latest in a MilSF series, this one named after the main character, by Mike Shepherd. It's the eleventh in this particular series, and, this time out, Kris is off to the far reaches of the galaxy with the shiny new title of commodore to wipe out the nasty aliens lurking there.

Ace's sister imprint Roc also has two mass-markets in November, and those are:

Magic and Loss, the third in a contemporary fantasy series from Nancy A. Collins called "Golgotham." (Collins wrote some really nasty, very modern and cutting vampire novels around twenty years ago, but I hadn't seen anything from her for a while -- clearly, I missed the first two books in this series.) It's set in Manhattan's secret supernatural ghetto -- amusingly, in roughly the same geographic location as the similar ghetto in the comic series Fables -- and features the tough young woman on the cover, who recently developed the ability "to bring whatever she creates to life."

And Devon Monk's Hell Bent is another urban fantasy, beginning a new series called "Broken Magic," about a near-future world in which magic is common, but nearly useless. Except for two young men work work secretly as "breakers" in Portland (the trendy one, in Oregon), where they can turn minor magics into old-fashioned powerful ones. They're getting to hate their work and each other, but then their secret gets out and Other Powers start nosing around, trying to find and control their abilities.

Darkness Splintered is another November mass-market from another sister imprint -- Signet -- of the Penguin empire, which is in the middle of merging with the Random House empire to form an even greater empire, but that only really matters to publishing geeks like me. Darkness Splintered is the sixth "Dark Angels" novel from Keri Arthur, though the angel on the cover doesn't look terribly dark to me -- even her glowy sword is a nice cheery purple color. I have to admit the back cover copy doesn't make much sense to me, with death threats, missing keys to Hell (the "second key," actually), and the usual vampires and werewolves roaming around. So I suspect you want to find the first book, Darkness Unbound, and start there.

Back to Roc: they also have a trade paperback coming November 5th in J. Kathleen Cheney's first novel, a historical fantasy called The Golden City. It's set just after the turn of the 20th century in the city of the same name, a (presumably-fictional) place in northern Portugal where non-humans are banned, but our heroine has been living secretly. Sher's some kind of mer-person, a spy from a city beneath the sea, and vows vengeance when her own friend is drowned.

I've mentioned Fiendish Schemes before -- the long-awaited sequel to the seminal 1987 steampunk novel Infernal Devices -- but it's now a finished book, since it was published on October 15. It's from K.W. Jeter, one of the mad geniuses of genre, and it's available now in trade paper from Tor -- but we warned: this isn't the kind of steampunk that's an exercise in leather-and-goggles fashion and airship fetishism; Jeter has larger aims in mind.

Tina Connolly has a second novel in her series about a secret human-faerie war during the Victorian era in Copperhead, which continues the story begun in Ironskin but shifts focus to the sister of Ironskin's heroine. This one is a Tor hardcover, also on October 15, and it looks like an interestingly specific novel, not a pick-and-mix genre exercise.

And last for this week is Max Gladstone's Two Serpents Rise, the second novel in the loose series begun with Three Parts Dead, which returns to the same magic-dominated alternate world but picks up with a new cast in a new city: the desert city of Dresediel Lex, whose water supply is under attack by shadow demons. Since this is a modern fantasy, the man sent in to clean up the problem is a risk manager (he'd be a member of GARP or PRIMIA in our world), who's working for what may well be that city's insurance carrier. I read Three Parts Dead last year and really enjoyed it: this is a smart, well-defined world, and Gladstone has already told one very good story in it. Two Serpents Rise is a Tor hardcover, coming October 29.