Wednesday, October 02, 2013

Starktober 2: The Man With the Getaway Face

At the end of The Hunter, Parker had his money back from the Outfit but one big problem came with it : that nationwide organized crime syndicate wanted him dead, and knew just what he looked like. The solution to that problem would take a lot of the money he'd just gotten back -- and that buried trade-off tells you a lot about Parker: he does things exactly the way he thinks he should, even if another approach would be simpler or more profitable -- as he has a plastic surgeon in Nebraska craft him a new, safe face at the beginning of The Man with the Getaway Face.

Stark keeps all of this very specific: Dr. Adler, that plastic surgeon now reduced to recrafting the faces of a few criminals a year, was a Communist organizer in the Thirties, and lost his lucrative high-society practice in San Francisco nearly a decade before during the height of the Red Scare. He's not some generic "mob doctor," but a particular man with a history and connections and an ideology he moved away from over the years -- and a chauffeur with an equally complicated backstory, Stubbs, who spent too much of the Thirties wading into strike-breaker riots and getting hit on the head, who now acts like a punch-drunk ex-boxer rather than the political organizer he once was. And, out at Adler's sanitarium in little Lincoln, Nebrasks, they need to be tough and wary: their customers are all criminals, after all, who might night want to rely on the doctor's discretion not to connect their old names to their new faces.

Parker gets the bandages off his new face in the first sentence of Getaway Face: as always, Stark will keep things moving forward. And Parker is on to his next job almost immediately, since the cost of his new face has blown a big hole in his limited funds. He can't wait to take only the jobs that feel just right, the way he used to; he has to grab what he can until he gets back on his feet. And that begins Stark's main theme of this series: these are books about the working world, about trying to organize your work and do it all precisely, but being stymied over and over again by complications and unreliable co-workers and outside problems. Parker's job is more dangerous and complicated -- and illegal -- than the ones the rest of us do, but that only heightens the stakes. There's an excellent MBA course to be taught about the lessons from Parker's heists -- how to deal with backstabbing and unexpected changes and hostile competition and win out in the end.

This particular job is only barely passable to begin with: an armored-car heist in New Jersey, near the border with Staten Island, to be hit at a diner worked by the finger, a sour, grumpy waitress named Alma. Alma met Skimm, an old acquaintance of Parker's, and told him about the armored car's routine, and Skimm brought in Parker, who then brought in a third man, Handy McKay. Parker is sure Alma plans to double-cross them and run with the money, which is one complication. Another one quickly arises when Stubbs, the punch-drunk chauffeur, shows up hunting for the man who just killed Dr. Adler: he's sure it's one of the three new faces Adler has done in the past year, of which Parker is the most recent.

Parker wants to walk away, but he can't afford to -- so he locks Stubbs in an abandoned farmhouse, and lets Alma make plans to be the one to leave the heist with the loot, knowing he can stop her when she avoids the rendezvous everyone pretends to plan.

To get his job right, Parker focuses on the little details, and Stark revels in them -- the timing of driving to the farmhouse, the cycle of local police going past the diner, the roads and intersections and dusty trails of what was still rural land in 1963. The getaway plans have to take into account a ferry to Brooklyn -- the Verrazano Narrows bridge was still under construction, and wouldn't open until 1964. Getaway Face is a short, kinetic novel, but it also has a deep sense of place and time -- it's a particular moment right there in rural Jersey.

So the heist does take place, and most of what Parker planned goes smoothly -- he's good at planning, and good at thinking about possible complications. But Stark loves to throw Parker into unexpected danger, so our cold, calculating criminal has to deal with more than just Alma's doublecross and Stubbs's escape attempts -- and, before the end of Getaway Face, he needs to find out who killed Dr. Adler himself and take care of that loose end, to keep the remaining sanitarium staff from publicizing the new faces of all recent customers in retaliation.

Getaway Face was the second Parker novel, but the first Parker caper novel; the first one showing what he did for a living and how he did it. So it really set the pattern for most of the books to come: Parker trying to reduce all of the possibilities and dangers and complications of a job to a simple plan, while the larger world keeps intruding chaotically and making him alter those plans on the fly. Stark loves to throw complications at Parker, and it's thrilling to read the ways Parker finds to get back out of the holes his creator keeps throwing him into.

And, again, at the end of this book, the immediate caper is over -- but the danger isn't, and that will lead directly into the next book: The Outfit. 

Starktober Introduction and Index

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