Donald Westlake’s Parker series, featuring the stoic and violent thief Parker, is a celebrated franchise of paperback crime fiction. The books are renowned for being fast-moving, unsentimental and flavored with irony and dark humor. The University of Chicago Press has reprinted the Parker titles in highbrow tradeback editions, and maintains a site tracking all of the different characters that populate them. Moreover, the most thorough Parker resource on the web remains The Westlake Review, which also covers many other of the author’s works.
Although I found the first book The Hunter problematic (Parker is clearly a sociopath in this one), many who have read it have been engrossed with the series from the start. For me, The Man with the Getaway Face is the true launching point of the series – so if you don’t like one, try the other before giving up on Parker.
In any case, Parker develops as a character as the series goes along, and I thought The Seventh was a clear step forward from The Jugger, which seemed to be pollenated with ill-fitting asides. A recent SFFaudio episode suggested that Parker’s motivations fit classic Epicureanism: his actions are not guided by abstract mores or a hunger for great things, but by his preferences (following the plan, getting his share of the loot) and whether someone has taken his property. In The Seventh we get to see what boundaries this philosophy places between Parker and others, as illustrated with the interactions he has with the secondary characters, and by the relationships that these other persons form with each other.
When the engine stopped, Parker came up on deck for a look around.
The Handle (1966), the next book in the Parker series, features another change in focus. Whereas The Seventh was dominated by the messy aftermath of a successful robbery, The Handle is focused on the set-up and planning of an even more brazen job – knocking over an island casino. As always, Westlake used the Richard Stark pseudonym for this title, adopting his darker noir style to accompany the name change. The Handle has also been published as Run Lethal, for some reason.
The most interesting cover of The Handle comes from the ever-versatile Harry Bennett, who chose to depict Parker (the big guy on the right), his female companion Crystal, and (I assume) the fellow thief Grofield on a blank canvas. Crystal is painted in full color, while a greyscale Grofield wears a rather flamboyant blue suit. Parker of course has barely any color at all, and he hides his famous hands in his coat pockets. Their eyes are all focused on something to the right, but their different postures indicate a sort of mutual independence in their intended actions. They don’t particularly look at ease with other, either. Even tough this book is a satire of the trendy spy thrillers of the time,* Bennett’s cover rightly highlights the psychological aspect of this unusually cerebral heist novel.
Given that the character of Parker is so well-defined by this point, Stark takes the opportunity to give The Handle more depth as a cultural allegory. In this case, Stark’s targets are the tropes of the spy-thriller sub-genre, popularized by James Bond books and movies. All of Fleming’s Bond novels had been published by 1966, as well as the first four Connery movies. The Handle is built upon a Bond-like setting, mission and cast of characters, with the notable exception of Parker taking the lead role instead of 007.
Whereas a spy would be receiving his mission from the British or American intelligence agencies, Parker is hired on by his old adversary The Outfit, which is headed by a character named Karns. Parker actually conspired with Karns to arrange a leadership change of The Outfit (in The Outfit), and now Karns arranges for Parker to eliminate a competitor, one Baron von Altstein. The “Baron” owns an island off the coast of Texas, as has built a casino on top of it, out of the reach of tax collectors and federal agents. Once Karns agrees to his expensive terms, Parker puts together a small team consisting of his old associates Grofield and Salsa, and some Outfit-supplied personnel.
von Alstein, an actual German Baron who escaped prosecution after the War (he was a Nazi officer who looted French art) is a clear mock-up of a “Bond villain,” which means he has a silent companion who does his dirty work (a man named Steuber) and we will get privileged access to both his past and his plans for the future. It turns out that the Baron does not have a devious plot for world domination, but merely wishes to stay out of the hands of the law and the Outfit. The Baron and Parker seem to have much in common, carrying on careers outside the law and the larger criminal organizations, but of course Parker has sold his services this time to Karns.
The “handle” of The Handle initially refers to the expected take from the casino robbery, but also refers to the use of names. The island’s name is Cockaigne, after a fantasy island of medieval myth, and the name of Wolfgang, Baron von Alstein is an obviously flamboyant appellation suited for Bond villains. Federal lawmen have a conversation with Parker discussing his various names, revealing how much they think they know about him. All of these cases are references to the habits of spy novels. Of course, there is a third use of handle that gets revealed at the end of the book.
Parker walked around the cab and opened the other door, and the little blonde danced out in a swirl of petticoats and narrow knees and tanned thighs above the stocking tops. She stood patting her waist and studying her purse as Parker shut the door again and the cab drove away.
“To tell you the truth,” the blonde said, as Parker took her elbow and they started down the pier, “to tell you the truth, I’m scared to death of water. Terrified. Petrified.”
The blonde is Crystal, and carries a hidden camera to help Parker reconnoiter inside the casino, while they pose as well-heeled gamblers. The Outfit has set her up in an apartment with a darkroom, so she has an obvious skill as a photographer. Nonetheless, Crystal is the “Bond girl” of the story, and there is the inevitable scene where she lures Parker into her bedroom.
Before he sleeps with her, Parker quickly figures Crystal for an escort as well as photographer, from her apartment furnishings. This unmasking is a strange, nebulous discussion about what the Outfit has told her to do; throughout the conversation Crystal appears to hide the amount of pressure she’s under to keep Parker with her. The typical spy-thriller would generally pair off Crystal with Parker for how ever long it fits the plot, but Stark mentions her role in “entertaining for the Outfit” across multiple chapters.
The James Bond movies reveled in the so-called Sexual Revolution of the 1960’s, not so much feminism or gender equality. As society became secularized and sexual mores relaxed dramatically, consent became the only barrier left between the Modern Woman and unwanted sexual attention. And what an imperfect barrier it is. Those with power and prestige have always managed to bend the meaning of consent, as it relates to the sexual relationships they pursue with those whose are less powerful. Intellectual figures who purport to be authorities on gender rights seem to fail to challenge these manipulations at the most critical of times.
The public statements** of Louis C.K. (“At the time, I said to myself that what I did was okay because I never showed a woman …. without asking first”) and Charlie Rose (“I always felt that I was pursuing shared feelings”) demonstrate how easily men of power – in media and entertainment, anyway – game the boundary of consent in their predatory actions. Crystal is clearly an escort in the employ of the Outfit for the sake of retaining Parker, but it’s also clear that she’s available to others on the team:
Parker said, “From now on, the contact with the Outfit is through Grofield and Crystal. Grofield’s going to want some stuff, some money and maybe other things, and he’ll talk through you, right?”
Crystal smiled at Grofield. “I don’t care,” she said.
“I don’t mind myself,” Grofield told her.
Salsa got to his feet. “Time for us to leave. See you soon, Parker.”
Grofield and Salsa headed for the door, Grofield saying to Crystal, “I may need lots of stuff. All kinds of stuff.”
“You just come and talk to me,” she said.
“Count on it, honey.”
This interaction reads with much more ambiguity in 2017 than it probably did in 1966. We also learn from Salsa that Crystal wanted to “photograph him unclothed,” which sounds like another euphemism. Was Crystal compelled to be sexually involved with Parker, Grofield and Salsa in rapid succession, out of fear from her employers in the Outfit? Unlike the three male characters, we never get to experience any part of the story from her viewpoint – we’re left to figure out just how dark the currents run, on our own.
Humboldt looked worried as he put the phone to his ear. “It’s me, Mr. Larris,” he said. “Humboldt.” He talked some more, the whine strong in his voice, and Parker didn’t listen.
When the conversation was done, Humboldt got heavily to his feet again and said, “Well, you get your hand grenades.”
“You,” Humboldt said. “You’re a hand grenade yourself.”
The Outfit, the large criminal organization that (with the help of Salsa) Parker rampaged over in The Outfit, is comprised largely of middlemen and specialists who dislike leaving their routines or comfort zone. Their piles of cash draw Parker into this scheme of knocking over a casino, and they are resourceful enough to recruit Crystal and a boat driver, at Parker’s request.
This boat driver, a lump of flesh named Heenan, is rejected by Parker almost immediately after they meet. Out of jail on early release, Heenan is a sexual felon who didn’t disclose his history before joining the crew. Parker and Grofield assume the Outfit will take care of “dusting” Heenan once he gets thrown out of the operation, but leaving this loose end proves to be a mistake.
During the week of research, photography and planning, Parker is tracked down by federal agents, who want the Baron for their own ends. After their attempts to impress Parker with a summary of his past aliases and crimes, the thief easily turns the tables and negotiates a relationship where he makes use of them. This is not exactly Bond and Her Majesty’s Secret Service.
The feds also bring in Grofield for questioning when they lose track of Parker. All this accomplishes is receiving derisive commentary.
Hopalong shook his head. “I don’t understand you people,” he said. “You don’t make sense. You do this, you do that, but nothing happens.”
“We’re the subjects of the red queen,” Grofield told him, knowing he wouldn’t get it and not giving a damn.
Stark, via Parker and Grofield, gets a number of jabs in against these organizations and the over-specialized people who populate them. It is worth remembering, however, that the heist is a service done by Parker and crew, who face the bullets and swinging office equipment instead of the Outfit or the law. Crystal’s actions communicate a healthy fear of disappointing the Outfit, and the Baron eventually has to set out on his own. In the end, Parker’s world is still largely run by institutions, however incompetently.
The Handle could have been written as an experiment to see what would happen when the role of James Bond was filled in by Parker. I see it as a more sharpened satire, but it’s been a long time since I’ve seen any of the Bond movies, and I am of course shaped by my own times. It is worth noting that Westlake later wrote a Bond-style spy novel, without the James Bond character. The ambiguity of The Handle and its larger purpose serve it well, as another entertaining read in the Parker series. 8/10.
* See The Westlake Review for a more complete review of this and all other John Stark novels. Instead of revealing most of the plot, I prefer to discuss the setup and one or two other things I find compelling.
** Call these public statements apologies if you want. I won’t. The best thing about statements like these is that they confirm the accusations, but this fact doesn’t undo the damage to the victims’ reputations that they had already suffered.