Thursday, October 17, 2013

Starktober 15: The Blackbird

After pointing out a few days ago that the Parker novel The Black Ice Score was "amazingly non-racist" in its view of African political skulduggery spilling into the streets of New York, I may have to take a more nuanced view of another novel Stark was writing at the same time.

The Blackbird is the third Alan Grofield novel; those three books form a loose trilogy, taking Parker's sometime heisting comrade far afield (Mexico in The Damsel, Puerto Rico in The Dame, and Quebec and points north in The Blackbird) and mixing him up in international intrigue. And the titles of those books each reflect the main female character: The Damsel was Elly Fitzgerald, who crept into Grofield's Mexico City hotel room and set him off on an adventure to save the life of a despicable Central American dictator. The Dame was Belle Danamato, who tried to hire him to protect her during a divorce from her gangster husband. And now The Blackbird is Vivian Kamdela, an African revolutionary he meets in the middle of his newest adventure. Calling her a "blackbird" probably didn't seem particularly racist in 1969 -- and was even clever -- but it has much more power to offend these days.

The book under that title, though, is as clear-sighted about international politics as Black Ice was (and as were the two prior Grofield books). Politics, in the novels of Stark and his true name Donald Westlake, are exercises in power and control, and the jockeying among nations is not that different from the jockeying among individuals for influence and wealth.

Grofield gets dragged into international intrigue in a more direct way this time; the first chapter of Blackbird, like so many other Stark novels, depicts a heist that goes well up to the moment that it goes completely wrong. One of Grofield's compatriots is killed, and another gets away: Parker himself, whose side of that story will be told in Slayground a few years later. Grofield himself is injured but not horribly so, and a couple of men calling themselves Murray and Ken arrive in his hospital room to ask him some questions. As so often happens in '60s paperbacks, they offer him a deal: there's something only he can do, and they'll clear this crime from his record if he goes along. Grofield would rather keep his current double life, and re-establishing himself as an actor under another name would be very difficult, so, after a few attempts to get away, he resigns himself to the job.

At the Chateau Frontenac in Quebec City, the heads of seven minor nations -- all in the Third World, neither US nor Soviet client states, from across the Americas, Africa, and Asia -- are meeting secretly. The nameless organization for which Murray and Ken work fears that this means some kind of alliance, and it assumes this can only be bad for the US. So Grofield -- who knows both General Pozos, the dictator he saved in The Damsel, and Onum Marba, a dignitary from the African nation of Undurwa whom he met in The Dame -- is to insinuate himself into that meeting, somehow, playing on both men's assumptions that he's an international soldier of fortune looking for an angle.

But Grofield's on-site handler, Henry Carlson, is soon murdered, and Marba isn't ready to believe Grofield's story. (And Marba's aide, the beautiful Miss Kamdela, suspects him much more strongly.) Events quickly escalate, and Grofield first finds himself at a lodge far to the north and then precipitously running through the snows outside that lodge, in danger of his life. And the real reason those nations are meeting turns out to be a much more immediate danger to the US than Murray and Ken could have guessed.

The Blackbird was a '60s paperback, and so Miss Kamdela warms up to Grofield before the end, and they together foil all of the plots and save the world. And this could have led to more novels about Alan Grofield and his international misadventures -- perhaps along the lines of Westlake's friend Lawrence Block's Evan Tanner thrillers -- but it didn't; there would be just more Grofield novel, Lemons Never Lie, in a mode much closer to Parker than to the prior novels. But, then again, the '60s were over by then, and international intrigue was on its way out, to be replaced by the Me Decade and the death of the belief in reflexive American superiority. Grofield just fell into international intrigue too late to make his mark there, so he'd have to go back to his day-jobs: acting and major robberies.

Starktober Introduction and Index

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