The Handle, by Donald Westlake (as Richard Stark)

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.

handle_original_1

Harry Bennett cover for Pocket Books. The Westlake Review.

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.

The Handle

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.

The Blonde

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.

The Outfit(s)

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.”

“I know.”

“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.

About pete

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

  1. fredfitch says:

    Thanks very much for the plug (got a ping via WordPress). Very interesting analysis. The danger, of course, with pulp fiction, is that one is sometimes tempted to overanalyze it.

    At the end of the day, Westlake was tasked with providing a nice bit of entertainment–but for this to be rewarding for him on any level other than monetary (he’s not even writing this under his own name), he has to find ways to engage with the well-worn material, stretch it out, modify it to suit his sensibilities. That’s where a bit of critical attention can bring out elements that went largely unnoticed at the time. Give it just the right amount of analysis–and we won’t always agree about how much analysis it needs, or on the analysis itself, but that’s the fun part, surely. I definitely agree that this is, to some extent, a satire of the spy novels prevalent then. Parker, the free agent, versus James Bond the Organization Man, who twits authority, but bows down to it.

    First of all, I also like the Bennett cover (the only one of his I don’t like is that for The Seventh), but I can only assume that’s Salsa on the left, given the general impression of Latin swarthiness. It doesn’t look like the description of him in the book, but it looks even less like Grofield, who is described as tall and so good-looking he could easily have a career in television, perhaps even major stardom, if it didn’t mean giving up the legitimate theater. He’d rather steal than prostitute his art. Another example of Starkian idealism.

    Secondly, I dissent on Parker being a sociopath in The Hunter, though I wouldn’t blame anyone for seeing him that way (some of his actions in that novel are still shocking now). I would agree with you that the second book (Westlake’s chosen title was The Mask, Bucklin Moon provided The Man With The Getaway Face) makes Parker a series character, creates the means whereby many novels about Parker could be written, but the development of the characters, his evolution, is all very logically carried out from the first novel.

    It’s important to remember that Westlake wrote The Hunter with the notion that Parker would die at the end, in the classic tradition of crime fiction anti-heroes who go up against the system–whether it’s the legitimate law, or the mirror image of it embodied by the criminal underworld. In Parker’s case, both. You can trace this back to Horace McCoy, and of course innumerable Hollywood gangster films. There is also a very powerful influence from Graham Greene’s A Gun For Sale. But Parker is more formidable, somehow, than any of these previous anti-heroes, to the point where the term doesn’t even seem applicable. He slips through the cracks, refuses definition.

    Westlake said later that he didn’t feel right about the ending where Parker is cut down by police bullets–but felt that it wouldn’t sell if Parker wasn’t killed at the end (and yet the original manuscript was rejected by several different publishers).

    He wanted to emphasize the rage and confusion Parker felt at being betrayed by his wife, and to show us this is somebody who doesn’t process emotions like a normal person, and that can of course mean a sociopath–except Parker is much more aware of his difference–and much less concerned by it–than a true sociopath would be. He doesn’t rationalize what he does, and he doesn’t blame anyone for it. This is how he is. To some extent, this is how he’s always been, but something about killing Mal completes his development–it’s at that moment, not in the second novel, that he becomes the character we see in the remaining books, fully emerges from the chrysalis–only not as a butterly.

    And as you know, my answer to this problem is that Parker was born with the soul of a wolf. He’s only a man on the outside. You don’t judge a beast of prey by the same standards as an evolved primate. He never claimed to share our values, so he can’t betray them. It’s a work of fiction, so we don’t need to concern ourselves with whether this is possible. It’s possible in these stories. Because the stories are about comparative psychology, Parker the wolf, contrasted with the much more conflicted and incomplete humans around him. What’s wrong for us is right for him. Your mention of the Epicureans is on point, I think, but Parker is no philosopher–he’s rather the kind of ideal philosophers write about–somebody whose instinctive behaviors are sufficient. Greeks often made comparisons between certain mythic figures and such predators as wolves. How much Westlake would have agreed wit this, I can’t be sure. But I’ve found quite a few indications his mind worked along parallel tracks, as he wrote the books.

    Crystal is a mob courtesan. She’s portrayed as knowing very well what she got herself into, what kind of people she’s dealing with. She didn’t sign on as a photographer, and to talk about her in terms of sexual harassment is missing the point. If Harvey Weinstein and Louis C.K. had stuck to sex workers, they wouldn’t be in trouble now. Many a working girl would be all too delighted to do nothing more to earn her fee than watch some jackass jack himself off in front of her. She sleeps with Parker the first time for her bosses, the other times for herself. Same with Grofield.

    I don’t see any reason why she wouldn’t want to sketch Salsa, who is described as being very pretty (even Parker notices), just for the aesthetic pleasure of doing so. (Parker’s lack of interest in what she does with other men is emblematic of his utter lack of typical male possessiveness or ego).

    This is down-rating her. She’s not a victim. Might as well call Mata Hari a victim. Whether her long-term prospects are assured are is another matter, but that would be true of anybody in these books, including Parker himself. I’m not saying it’s a feminist portrayal, but it’s comparable to somebody wanting to work as an actress and being told she’s got to put out first.

    Westlake viewed rape with extreme distaste, repeatedly depicted rapists as the most contemptible and revolting of creatures. Perhaps because rape is a double violation–you are taking another person’s choice away–but you are also destroying your own sense of self. Polluting your identity. But that’s for another discussion.

    Liked by 1 person

    • pete says:

      I thought the third figure – be it Grofield or Salsa, was walking in from more of a distance, not necessarily that short. The text on the cover about “the unlikely trio” would seem to indicate the three characters being Parker, Grofield and Salsa.

      I don’t think I made the claim that Stark made Crystal a victim, here – but I think her actions and dialogue can be read in more than one way. The more likely interpretation is yours, of course. It’s just not the way I see it. Given what happens to the women in the “The Hunter,” it’s not a reach to assume the Crystal is taking a big personal risk when she phones her Outfit boss. It’s also not a reach to assume Crystal would be a lot better off, if Grofield and company is seen around her place, in the event that Parker abandons the project.

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      • fredfitch says:

        It is very often hard to know who is being depicted on the covers, and the fact is, Westlake probably got no input on that end, and was probably just grateful if the art didn’t stink. And Bennett’s certainly does not stink. And Parker isn’t a blonde, but Bennett still painted him as one twice. Forget it Pete, it’s Artsville.

        Self-evidently there is risk in what Crystal does, but she goes in without any illusions about that–as the mob equivalent of a double agent. The very type of woman Bond so often encounters–but different. That, as you’ve already said, is the point of the book, to take a well-established genre and turn it on its head, and nobody ever did this better than Westlake.

        Parker makes it clear he doesn’t care what she tells her bosses. There’s no way she can compromise him, because he won’t share anything with her, and anyway, they’re all working on the same job together. If she were a cop, or a real secret agent, she’d be in danger.

        I don’t get any sense that she’s frightened of Parker or his colleagues–wary, sure. But the way a professional is wary. She’s been around far worse, and after all, sex is what she’s there to provide them–then bring information to her employer, but Parker doesn’t do pillow talk (this has already been explained in The Seventh), so she is no threat to him at all. Nor is she interesting to him, once his sex drive shuts down, as it always does at this point in the series, once he starts seriously working on a heist. And so she entertains herself with Grofield and Salsa.

        (You may be right that she’s also giving her bosses the impression that she’s still working these men for information, but she could just hang around Parker. It’s not like they’re peeping through keyholes. I don’t think she was lying to Parker when she said she’d done her job, and everything else was for her. Maybe this isn’t realistic, but how realistic is this kind of book supposed to be?)

        This is something you didn’t touch on, and it’s important. For the first eight books in the series, we’re told Parker only cares about sex for at most a few months out of the year. The rest of the time, he is, effectively, impotent. But not in the sense that he tries and fails. In the sense that he doesn’t want to, so he doesn’t try. He doesn’t even think about it. And it doesn’t bother him that he doesn’t think about it. He only thinks about it here because he’s surprised he does want sex with Crystal–because it’s only been a short time since the end of The Seventh. He’s still got that post-heist hard on, and because he’s only been thinking about doing the job for Karns, his libido is still in that transitional period between the end of one job and the start of another.

        So that’s an interesting puzzle for Westlake to work at, but he seemed to think he’d done all he could with it, so the next novel (at a new publisher) introduced Claire, and Parker is again surprised–he wants sex with her all the time, unless he’s very actively planning a job. She’s his mate in a way his wife Lynn never was. And he completely loses interest in other women, with one very brief partial exception in Comeback. So that really does hammer home the point that he’s not human. 😉

        Liked by 1 person

      • pete says:

        Yeah, I skipped over that part about Parker wondering why he was having sex with Crystal before the job. That’s because I thought it was because Parker was essentially playing James Bond (instead of going about his business the way he normally does), and this internal dialogue was more of a situational joke than anything else.

        Parker certainly is an unusual cat – not human in many respects. Do you think that means that the other characters are more realistic humans?

        Genre novels of more average quality usually invest everything in the main characters, and the other characters – so often the women – are there to serve the plot, decorate the covers or serve as two-dimensional caricatures. Westlake seems to flip this script and give us some secondary characters in worth arguing over in this series.

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      • fredfitch says:

        Parker is being compared subtextually with Bond, but the joke is that he’s nothing like Bond. Bond is always interested in sex, simply controls his urges when the job he’s doing calls for it–also uses his sexuality as a weapon on the job, keeping emotional involvement to a minimum, as Crystal does here (she’s really the one who’s like Bond). Bond, of course, can’t ever be allowed to have a steady girl–either she won’t want him (Moonraker) or she’ll get killed off (In Her Majesty’s Secret Service). For about two thirds of the Parker novels, he’s exclusively with one woman, and he doesn’t think of that as virtue. It’s just what works for him. It also means Westlake doesn’t have to spend a lot of time on romantic subplots.

        To Parker, sex is just something he does when he wants to do it, and never thinks about at any other time. He never uses it as a weapon, couldn’t really grasp the concept of that, because that’s not what it’s for. If you need a weapon, you have guns, knives, hands. Closest he ever gets to using it as a weapon is when he tells Lynn that he’ll never be available to her that way again, which is what makes her kill herself. He’s a very different kind of fantasy than Bond.

        Parker is an ideal. I know that sounds twisted, but it makes sense within the context of the books. Ideals, by themselves, can’t be interesting–you need contrast. So in every Parker novel, you get drawn into the minds of other characters, and the point is always that Parker knows himself very well, and most of them don’t know themselves at all. Identity is the driving force behind everything Westlake wrote. And Parker is the ideal he aspires to, while knowing that storytelling isn’t about harmony. It’s about conflict. In a world of Parkers, Parker would be dull. In a world of only one Parker, he’s endlessly fascinating. Because we can never completely figure him out.

        Liked by 1 person

  2. fredfitch says:

    NOT comparable, sorry. I get spoiled, being able to edit my posts at my own blog. Of course, you can compare anything to anything, but this is not the same thing. Crystal knows who she is, and what she’s paid to do. She is a sex worker. Sex workers may become victims, frequently do, but they are not victims simply because they do their jobs. And certainly not on the too-rare occasions they enjoy their jobs.

    Liked by 1 person

    • pete says:

      We’ll have to agree to disagree on that one.

      When I used the 2017-era sexual harassment examples, I stuck to the excuse-making because before a criminal trial, these public acknowledgements will have to do, as far as evidence as to what actually happened. What happened is the gaming of consent, to the advantage of those in power. In The Handle, it’s The Outfit that’s in the position of power – and Crystal definitely did not want the crew to leave town.

      Like

      • fredfitch says:

        Well no, but by the time Parker loses sexual interest in her, it’s very obvious that it’s because he’s gotten interested in the challenge of taking down Cockaigne. Once Parker’s hunting instinct has been engaged, he’s going to follow through. I think Crystal is smart enough to know that nothing she does or does not do is going to make any difference. Her bosses might not be so smart. But I really think every sex act she performs after she and Parker have that talk is for her own personal gratification.

        And that’s the goal, right? People doing what they want to do, when they want to do it.

        Liked by 1 person

  3. fredfitch says:

    Also–about the cover–and covers for this type of book generally–we can’t assume the artist even read the book. Maybe skimmed it, or was handed a sheet of paper with a few key plot points on it, and a deadline for getting the work in.

    Bennett’s Parker is good, maybe a bit too hunky, but the use of color is indicative that he understands something about the way the character fades into the background, isn’t interested in drawing attention to himself. However, If he’d read this book, he’d know Crystal was a blonde, and of course she never would have had the time to get a hairdo like that. It’s something out of an earlier era. He might have read it, and just decided he preferred to do it this way. I believe they get some kind of license to do that.

    So the thing to do about covers from this era of paperbacks is enjoy them for their own merits, and this is far better than the average run. I did a whole piece on covers for the Grofield novels, and it was not complimentary in the main, but artists have to eat too. Even the bad ones.

    Liked by 1 person

    • pete says:

      That’s true (about not knowing whether Bennett read the manuscript), but I don’t have access to the artist – all I get is the art. When it comes to the visual arts – and this might be my being an engineer – I think about what the art says, not so much the artist. So I’m assuming, for my own convenience, that there’s some relationship with the story at hand. It’s also why I prefer the evocative cover art of paperbacks in the old days (good or bad).

      Liked by 1 person

      • fredfitch says:

        Yeah, I’m not a huge fan of most modern cover art. Here and there, you get something great, but I work at a library, all kinds of new novels cross my desk in the course of a week, and the cover art almost always leaves me cold. Assuming there’s any art at all. Of course, none of them are crime paperbacks. Hard Case Crime does a pretty good job recapturing a bit of the glamor of that era, but those days are gone.

        Liked by 1 person

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