The Seventh, by Donald Westlake (as Richard Stark)

First, a preamble about the highly regarded Parker series so far . . .

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Harry Bennett cover for Pocket Books

Under the Richard Stark pseudonym, the mystery writer Donald Westlake wrote a very successful series of masculine crime novels about the violent thief Parker. Starting with The Hunter in 1962, Parker was portrayed as a sociopath who sought vengeance on anyone who crossed him after a score, willing to harm anyone who happens to be in the way. The very first thing he does in the series is knock his wife Elle out, after tracking her apartment down (she had shot Parker as part of another criminal’s plot to steal his share of a successful robbery). There is a certain inevitability in his quest for revenge, since his quarry ultimately has a little too much humanity in him, compared to Parker. To be to fair to Stark, Parker was intended as a one-off character when The Hunter was written.

Parker gets remade in the next book (the first one written with intention of continuing the series), The Man With the Getaway Face, where some expensive plastic surgery gives him a chance to provide himself with a cover. We see a more calculating Parker who (partially successfully) manages his imperfect associates. Instead of seething with anger towards Elle in the first book, Parker manages his emotions and spends most of the novel doing what he does best – plotting and planning his next score.

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Harry Bennett cover for Pocket Books

This is the Parker we see in the next few entries in the series: The Outfit, The Mourner and The Score. All three books are entertaining reads with an impressive variety of plot twists and side characters. These all have the elements of planning with others, negotiation over who does what and when the loot gets split up, and the inevitable sundering of these plans once the action starts. The Richard Stark world of criminals is ruled by two warring forces: Parker and entropy. Once competing incentives take hold (characters consistently get sidetracked by sex or rage, or trust falls apart), Parker’s plans get dissolved into chaos. However, Parker’s relentless quest for renumeration – he will get his share, no matter how many people end up dead in his path – eventually forces a renewed order to the proceedings. Things get resolved enough to move on to the next novel.

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Harry Bennett cover for Pocket Books

The series turns again in the sixth book The Jugger, where Parker’s link to other criminals – a retired bank robber named Joe – comes under threat by a dirty small-town policeman. Instead of tracking down the proceeds from a score or wreaking vengeance after some double-cross, Parker is instead drawn into Abner’s seedy plot to find Joe’s stash of money. We get a very good look into the mind of the cop, who is a sociopath of the same type as the version of Parker in The Hunter – Parker made no secret about his intentions on beating the full plans of betrayal out of Elle over a long period of time, and Abner has done the same thing to a terrified Joe by the time Parker gets to town. It’s an ambitious book that bookends the first part of the Parker series and attempts to deal with Stark’s unease with continuing to polish and re-use the monster created in The Hunter. That’s my take on it in any case.

Unfortunately, The Jugger suffers from what appear to be tacked-on explanations of Parker’s motivations, including some anger toward Joe for violating some “code.” This mention of criminal ethics poisons the well to some extent, because I keep seeing and hearing references to Parker’s “code” in reviews of other books in the series. In my mind, neither straight-to-the-reader asides nor some Code for career criminals fit the character at this or any other point. The Outfit ran by a Code, and we see what happens to The Outfit, back in The Outfit.

The Seventh (1966, also published as The Split) represents a return to form for Parker: once again he’s wronged after a successful robbery, but this time he seeks revenge out of being angry about it. The novel opens, like all Parker books, with a memorable first line:

When he didn’t get an answer the second time he knocked, Parker kicked the door in.

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Robert McGinnis cover for Gold Medal books. The Westlake Review.

After kicking in said door, Parker discovers his girlfriend Ellie stabbed through with a sword, which had been hanging on the wall. He had been hiding out in the place with Ellie with briefcases full of cash from a successful robbery, celebrating the way he does. Ellie’s fate is not surprising, given the way Parker consumes women like bags of potato chips and attracts murderous criminals into his hideouts. The scene is memorably depicted by a Robert McGinnis cover — although not timelessly, given Parker’s powder blue turtleneck.

Parker recognizes the act as a likely crime of passion (not the “double-cross” of the cover writing), but all of the money is stolen from the bedroom closet – and two cops show up at the apartment a minute later. He might have been able to talk his way out of being arrested, had it not been for the machine guns that spill out of the floor when the police search the room. At the point, of course, Parker uses his super-sized hands to knock the men in blue out and make his escape.

However, he gets shot at upon leaving the apartment via fire escape, presumably by the same party who killed Ellie and called the police. On his way to find Dan Kifka, the local part-time crook responsible for bringing Parker in to the job, he gets trailed by a local “moocher” who is also seeking out Kifka for a debt of $37. Parker does a poor job getting rid of him, and gets shot at again outside of Kifka’s hideout. The pathetic moocher is killed instead.

Ellie’s brutal death does not effect Parker on any emotional level, but the killer recklessly pokes the bear one too many times, and Parker commits to blood vengeance as well as material payback:

… Ellie was dead, the suitcases were gone. Parker had a brawl with a couple of cops and he’d been trailed by a thirty-seven dollar moocher and he’d been shot at by person or persons unknown who hadn’t killed him but who had killed the moocher as a consolation prize.

It was time to start pushing back.

The next section describes, in an impressively compact fashion, the heist that brought in such a harvest of cash. This when we are introduced to the rest of the gang of seven and their roles in an audacious robbery. Their target was the ticket revenue from a college football game, picked out by Kifka*. Also involved are a duo of career criminals – Arnie Fecchio and Little Bob Negli, and the part-timers Clinger, Shelley and Ruud. These are moderately interesting characters in their own right, much like the cast of The Score. The planning and execution of the stadium robbery is a treat to read through.

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Harry Bennett cover for Pocket Books. http://www.existentialennui.com

The gang of seven are illustrated by a particularly interesting Harry Bennett cover for Pocket Books. Bennett’s depiction of Parker varies inventively between books, as pointed out here. For The Seventh, the front cover features Kifka and his girlfriend Janey (a university student who latches on to him after he drives her away from an ex-boyfriend), and the back illustration is of Parker and the rest of his crew. I found it interesting that the Kifka drawing is framed within a television screen, as if that particular moment were a recalled image. Indeed, we never see Kifka up and dressed like that – ready to meet his adversaries – so perhaps Bennett is hinting at a Kifka remembered (or imagined) by Janey, but outside of the narrative of The Seventh.

Parker’s pursuit of Ellie’s killer brings him into a direct confrontation with the detective in charge of the case, one Detective William Dougherty. Perhaps surviving the events of The Jugger has emboldened him in dealing with the local police, but Parker meets the detective inside his own house. After some negotiation and implied threats, Dougherty gives Parker the list of names and address of his investigative leads.

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Harry Bennett line drawing. http://www.existentialennui.com

The killer and the moocher are examples of wrenches that get thrown into the mechanical works of Parker’s making.Without his criminal ambitions, Ellie still may have provoked her own death, but the gang’s conscious choice (at Parker’s urging) to stick around and find the money leads to a series of violent mistakes.

The killer – whose panic and rage are richly described – certainly seemed committed from the start to get back at Ellie in some way. Unfortunately, Stark includes another to-the-reader parenthetical aside that needlessly explains the killer’s mindset. We also get too much of the moocher’s thoughts. At least it’s not Parker this time.

Dougherty proves to be just as canny of an adversary as The Jugger’s Abner, albeit with far better principles. His calculated efforts are in contrast to the unnamed killer, and Parker’s gang quickly find themselves in between these elements – to frequently disastrous effect. Without spoiling the events of the second half of The Seventh, it’s enough to point out that Stark’s use of the police in this novel demonstrate how he uses expectations set in previous books in the series to augment surprises going forward. Parker definitely appears to have underestimated the cops this time around.

The Seventh defines Parker by a skillful comparison to the relationships formed between other characters. Kifka** and Janey share genuine affection, following an unlikely introduction. Little Bob Negli has a (probably one-sided) infatuation for Fecchio to an extreme that brings him into a confrontation with Parker. Maybe these bonds are short-lived in the end, but they are at least legitimate relationships. Parker’s anger over losing Ellie is one of lost property, and he thinks of her death with the case callous regard as the detectives: there’s loot to track down.

The Parker series was published as a way to follow up on the commercial success enjoyed by Mickey Spillane’s hyper-masculine detective paperbacks. As Richard Stark, Westlake filled the void left in the wake of Spillane for Gold Medal Books, making entertaining page-turners that also offered some literary depth. I still consider The Comedy is Finished as the best Westlake novel in my reading experience, but with The Seventh the series is getting stronger. 7/10.

EDIT: My mistake, the picture caption linked to the correct blog, but not the specific post. Check out this post for a thorough two-part review of The Seventh, as well as some of the publication history.

 

* Dan Kifka’s Hungarian ancestry hints that the action takes place in a university town in Upstate New York, the same region as in Westlake’s earlier novel 361. I believe Westlake actually moved to the area once he determined that he did not need to be in New York City to stay in business as a writer.

** I think the name Kifka is for local flavor, as opposed to its similarity to Kafka, even as this novel features an unnamed principal character, abrupt beginning to the narrative, and a nebulous system of law enforcement (this time, criminal law enforced by Parker’s gang). Maybe it’s because it’s been so long since I’ve read the great Czech, but I couldn’t point to a Kafka novel or story that lines up with The Seventh.

 

About pete

former academic scientist and presently a software engineer. Also, a science fiction and crime fiction book-blogger.
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7 Responses to The Seventh, by Donald Westlake (as Richard Stark)

  1. Pingback: The Handle, by Donald Westlake (1966, as Richard Stark) | gaping blackbird

  2. fredfitch says:

    Man, if I covered ground as quick as you, I’d have finished my blog in six months. 🙂

    Very perceptive comment on The Jugger–Westlake hated this book, for precisely the reason you mention. I think it’s one of his best, and many agree, but motivating Parker’s trip to that town was where Westlake had problems (his editor called him in, and they rewrote parts of it together).

    Parker likes Joe Sheer and all, but not enough to stick his neck out. The code of ethics thing is wrong–Stark imposing an idea on Parker. But I still feel that it makes sense he goes there, because Joe knows a lot about him, and if his mind is going, who knows what he might tell this lawman. Parker has to know if this is a danger to him–and whether Joe has to be killed to shut him up.

    I also think–and this may be my imagination–that Joe knew very well Parker might come to kill him, not save him–but he won’t be there, for reasons you already know. Parker will then turn his attentions to the sheriff. And that’s how Joe Sheer got his revenge.

    As to The Seventh, pretty sure the town is based on Binghamton. I’ve been there. If you haven’t, don’t feel like you missed anything, but I checked, and they still have regular flights to Hungary from the nearby airport.

    Liked by 1 person

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