The Black Ice Score, by Donald Westlake (as Richard Stark)

The eleventh novel in the famous Parker series, The Black Ice Score (1968) once again features the inventive criminal on a well-planned burglary with a messy and violent aftermath. This time, however, he is hired as a consultant and stays out of the burglary itself. Only when his girlfriend Claire, now a major character again after missing the bulk of The Green Eagle Score, gets kidnapped by a rival gang does Parker get his hands dirty.

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David Drummond cover for The University of Chicago Press. www.press.uchicago.edu

The fact that Parker is missing from the actual heist appears to be a source of disappointment for some readers, and the thief does get left out of a few chapters. However, the burglary features Parker’s meticulous planning, and the characters who steal the diamonds–a pair of educated young Africans attempting to recover the cash reserves of their home country–are of particular interest to Westlake. Parker is not working with outcasts and perennial criminals this time.

Beware the ides of March

Parker is in New York at the start of novel, and instead of finding Claire in his hotel room, he encounters a group of white Africans:

The faces were all strangers. They were all about forty, tall, in good physical condition, well dressed, deeply tanned. They might be law, but they didn’t smell like it. They smelled like something new, something Parker didn’t know anything about.

He said, “Where’s the woman?” because Claire was supposed to be in here; she was here when he’d gone out, and he didn’t like the idea of her being around guns.

The one at the suitcase nodded his head toward the closed bathroom door. “In there,” he said. “On a promise of good behavior.”

These men are from the colonial families who had been the landowners in the fictional African country of Dhaba. Dhaba recently became independent, making the land wealth and citizenship status of these now ex-colonists dependent on having a supported politician as president. Dhaba came to be ruled by a corrupt colonel, who decided to flee the country with half of the treasury’s wealth in diamonds. While the colonel has not left Dhaba, his family is hiding out with the diamonds in a “heritage museum,” which is closed off to the public but kept up to appease its U.N. sponsors.

The colonel’s plan is known to others in Dhaba, including the country’s U.N. representation, but not to the public–two different military figures are waiting for the right time to depose him. Presumably, it’s when they have possession of the loot, needed to secure their place in power. One pretender to the throne is supported by the ex-colonist white Africans, and the other is Major Indindu, whose loyalists inside the U.N. have arranged to hire Parker to help with a raid of their own on the museum.

Major Indindu is not the type to lead from the front, so it’s his four subordinates, Gonor, Manado, Formutesca and an unnamed fourth, who show up in Parker’s hotel room. This time, Claire is unthreatened by their presence (which Westlake describes, referring to their traditional robes, as a scene from Julius Caesar):

Claire made the introductions, gesturing at the one of the four who was coming toward Parker now with a solemn face and an outstretched hand. “Mr Gonor,” she said, “this is Mr Parker. Parker, this is Gonor.”

The use of the name surprised him. He looked away from Gonor to Claire.

She smiled slightly and shook her head. “That was the name they knew,” she said. “Like the other ones.”

From the beginning, Westlake makes it clear which side he sympathizes with. We know the black Africans’ names far sooner than the white Africans, who were dubbed “number one,” “number two” and so on in the first chapter. The white Africans’ potential threat to Claire is made quite clear. “Number one” is actually named Marten, so I will refer to the group of white Africans as Marten’s crew and the group of black Africans as Gonor’s crew from now on. The black/white racial conflict is a major theme in TBIS, and is explored in detail in The Westlake Review’s thorough article. Westlake would later write at least one book (Up Your Banners) centered around racial tensions in New York and another about political turmoil in mid-century Africa (Kahawa). I haven’t read either of these, so I refer to The Westlake Review for more information about them as well.

The explicit reference to Julius Caesar is interesting, and unusual for a Parker novel. Parker himself is famously inscrutable, so it could be a message from the author:

  • It could be a reference to a much larger political drama happening in Dhaba. Parker may just be a consultant to a robbery, but the heist may trigger bloody civil war and chaos. Westlake may be noting that Americans tend to blithely ignore the breakdown of remote countries until something bad happens on our shores.
  • It could hint at the structure of TBIS: like Julius Caesar, it has this pattern:
    • proposed conspiracy
    • scheming
    • bloody act
    • game-changing speech: Parker’s no-frills monologue is Westlake’s amusing answer to Mark Antony’s address over Caesar’s corpse, one of the most renowned passages in all of Shakespeare’s dramas.
    • bloody resolution
  • Julius Caesar is also famous for its balance among three principal actors: Caesar, Brutus and Cassius. Westlake likewise divides TBIS among Parker and other characters–something he has done very successfully in other Parker titles.
  • It could be signaling that there are no unambiguous heroes and villains in the story–all parties are serving their own ends. Julius Caesar is famous for its ambiguous characters, emphasizing ambition and comeuppance over good and evil. It would be a mistake to read Shakespeare’s play as a political statement, and the same can be argued for TBIS.

Parker does not take up Gonor’s side immediately, since information about their ambitions has already been betrayed to Marten. After all, his group showed up in Parker’s room first. Parker and Claire retire to Miami, where Gonor soon surprises them with the news that they found and eliminated the spy. This impresses Parker enough to go back to New York and be their consultant; tellingly, Claire convinces him to take her along.

When they shall see the face of Caesar, they are vanished

The part of him that took pleasure in professionalism, in craft, was already half involved in the project, anxious to find out the rest of the details.

But there were things against it too. They were amateurs, no matter how tough or how willing. And they had spread the news around too much, so that the job was complicated with Hoskins and General Goma and the ex-colonists and who knew how many others.

Parker’s willingness to get involved with Gonor again, not to mention failing to keep Claire as far away from an offshore African coup as possible, speaks to his perennial blind spot. As smart as he is, he almost always underestimates the amount of damage some rogue element is capable of. In TBIS, that rogue element is a drifting con-man named Hoskins.

Hoskins actually meets Parker in the hotel lobby after he chases off the ex-colonists in the first chapter. This means that Gonor and company are the third party to discuss the “secret” diamond heist with Parker. Hoskins uses this fact to try cajoling Parker into admitting that he’s after the diamonds himself, and therefore should join Hoskins in plotting a double-cross for a massive score. He uses too many words and poses the possibility distastefully–as an opportunity for “two white men”–and Parker leaves him waiting at the hotel bar.

When Parker plans diamond heist, he accounts for the colonel’s family, the alarm systems and the need to stay ahead of Marten’s crew, but not Hoskins. He assumes the con-man is not the type of criminal to interpose himself in a potentially violent raid. Parker seems to associate people who cannot get to the point in conversation as less capable, and therefore less threatening.

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Robert McGinnis cover for Gold Medal. The dreadful front-cover cursive returns. Kidnapping has two p‘s, not one.  http://www.thewestlakereview.wordpress.com

On the other hand, all of Parker’s heists are taken on as calculated risks, and he anticipates being far away from the action after collecting his consulting fee. This new role as the planner must have some appeal to Claire, who has experienced the mayhem of a burglary gone wrong in the past.

Take the current when it serves, or lose our ventures

Once the actual heist begins, the viewpoint switches from Parker to other characters. Westlake has done this is several previous Parker episodes, allowing us to envision the action from the viewpoints of multiple personalities. Here, Manado and Formutesca, the two younger members of the U.N. mission, are distinguished from each other. We get to see which one has a higher level of anxiety and which one is more acclimated to the idea of violence. Manado, for instance, is an educated, idealistic radical:

In a way, it was America’s ambivalence toward him that first made him consciously a patriot about his homeland. He saw that Dhaba with idealistic men at her helm could eventually offer everything America offers, and without the left-handed taking away. He wanted that; he wanted it badly.

Badly enough to be sitting here in this darkness, a machine gun cradled in his lap, waiting to steal and to kill.

Formutesca, despite having impressed Parker to a greater degree during the planning stages, is less certain of his true nature:

All he could think about was what was happening inside himself.

Bara Formutesca was African middle class, and he himself wasn’t entirely sure what that meant. His father was a British-trained doctor, his mother a German-trained school-teacher, and their son was an American trained diplomat. But what did that mean, or matter?

We get other perspectives, including one of the ex-colonists. This character gets humanized to minor degree, in that he has been disenfranchised by political turnover and involved in criminal enterprise, but to that point hasn’t committed any acts of violence. Marten’s gang is not made of sympathetic characters, but they’re not exactly mustache-twisting villains either.

Cry havoc and let slip the dogs of war

Claire’s involvement in plot doesn’t end before the heist: Parker is notified that she has been kidnapped,* and information about where the diamonds are going to be hidden is the only way she will be returned to him. Parker sees through this lie rather easily, since the criminals would have to protect their own tracks and are looking for a way to kill him after getting the loot.

When he found his short-term girlfriend skewered with a sword at the beginning of The Seventh, he spent the rest of the book on a mission of bloody vengeance. Here, Parker doesn’t know what has happened to Claire, but cutting his losses and leaving New York is out of the question: it’s not to difficult to see that Parker intends to make the kidnappers suffer the consequences.

Parker enlists the help of Major Indindu (and what is left of his crew), after explaining what he did to drawing Marten to the museum, but only after the diamonds were found. The explanation is told by Parker, occupying a strange-looking chapter in the first person. We now know what Parker’s oratory style is like: as spare and logical as possible. After explaining that he warned Gonor about the potential danger that Hoskins posed, Parker tells how he managed to convince Marten to make his ambush after the raid, not during it:

I told him I wanted to help him figure out a good plan because I didn’t want him to go up against you people and lose. I wanted my woman back too much for that. That made sense to him, so he listened to me.

I said his best bet would be to come here. I said they shouldn’t come before you got here because they’d have to break in, and that would leave marks you people would see. But I was pretty sure you planned to do some drinking when you got back here, and in any case none of you would be alert–you’d be feeling the after-effects of the tension of doing the thing out on Long Island–so the thing for them to do was get here after you’d been here maybe an hour. I told them the front door would be easy to get through, and none of you would hear them because you’d be four floors up.

It’s not so much the speech itself that’s impressive, but how Parker set up the circumstances around it. Indindu gets only a few minutes to make up his mind before the kidnappers burst into the museum for a shootout. Parker also mentions Indindu’s military title, while pleading ignorance about Dhaba politics. With some reluctance, then, Indindu agrees to help Parker, and Formutesca–perhaps still eager to prove himself to his mentor–volunteers to participate. This leads to a final confrontation, another violent scene that recalls some of the closing events of Julius Caesar.

TBIS shares a couple of characteristics with The Jugger: Parker is assumed by others to be part of a criminal plot before he’s figured out why, and he is made to explain his behavior explicitly. In The Jugger, his actions were explained in an ill-fitting about a professional “code” that had been broken by his former colleague. Here, he has an extended monologue that fits his mentality and shows off his ability to manipulate his desperate situation.

I’m convinced that Westlake looked to Shakespeare for inspiration in constructing TBIS. Not only is there a political grounding to the events of the book, but several plot points appear to be borrowed from the famous play. It does make for an uneasy fit with contemporary racial issues: the explicit reference to Julius Caesar is actually couched in racist tough-talk from Parker–Westlake establishes that he’s practical in dealing with the Africans, not liberal. In that sense TBIS may be taking on a bit too much within its pages. Nonetheless, the uniqueness and humor of this classic drama-diamond heist mashup make for a very worthwhile continuation of the Parker series. 8/10.

* Even though she has the role of Damsel in Distress at the end of the story, and this is played up on the covers of multiple paperback editions, a chapter from her point of view shows her impressively keeping herself composed.

About pete

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

  1. fredfitch says:

    I was on a trip when you posted this, and found it impossible to respond via my phone, even when I had wifi, which wasn’t often. And I have to say, this is the unkindest cut of all. To post this fascinating review at the precise moment I can’t respond to it? And this was not the only missive of note that arrived at the worst possible time. Et tu, Peter?

    Shakespearean references in Westlake are quite common, and not unknown in Stark–think of Grofield reciting all parts of a scene from Henry IV Part One in The Score.

    Westlake did not, however, tend to base his plots around those of The Bard (who almost invariably based his plots on pre-existing stories). I think we’d have to agree there’s not much similarity in the stories being told, or in the characters in each, but I still think you’re onto something I missed in my review. It’s oblique, but it’s there. The basic theme of civil foment, rival factions. And, as you say, the bizarre sight of Parker giving a speech. Only he’s asking them to lend him an ally.

    I’ll have to read the book again sometime, and see if I can find anything else.

    I don’t find anything racist in Parker’s speech or behavior here. He’s not capable of racism, because he’s not a man, but a wolf. Yes, Stark wants to make it clear there’s no racial guilt there–he wouldn’t understand the concept of collective guilt, or guilt itself, for that matter–but there’s no antagonism either. He likes the Africans better because they’re more professional, or at least on the road to becoming professionals. Parker does have a certain instinctive drive to pass on what he knows to those he thinks are capable of using it, and they bring that out in him.

    He does send Claire out of town as a precaution, but in this case that isn’t enough, and Stark needs to motivate him to seek retribution on the whites, otherwise it’s impossible to bring him fully into the action of the story.

    We do have to accept, I think, that if he never made any mistakes at all, the books would be really dull. The books are, to a great extent, about how he improvises workarounds to deal with the inevitable consquences of Murphy’s Law.

    Does he underestimate Hoskins’ guts, or overestimate his survival instinct? The coldly considering mental make-up that makes Parker so formidable also makes it hard for him to understand why people do things that are contrary to their own continued existence. In any event, it’s not his heist. He’s just an instructor, until Claire gets involved.

    I also see parallels between this book and The Jugger, and it does seem that in some respects Westlake thought he’d done a better job here than in the earlier novel, which most present-day readers (myself included) think is the better piece of work. But again, for Westlake writing as Stark, motivation is everything. How can he make Parker do something that isn’t completely self-interested without ruining him? How can he make seemingly altruistic behavior ring true in a being so alien to altruism?

    The answer, to me, is that altruistic behaviors exist in nature. But altruism, for them, is at all the same as altruism in humans. Altruism isn’t a concept for our fellow travelers here. It’s not something they do because they think they should, because they yearn for heaven, fear hell, want to be remembered well after their deaths, want to look in the mirror and like what they see (most of them don’t even recognize themselves in mirrors). They do it because it makes sense to them at the time.

    I’ll have to reread the Shakespeare play, and see if there’s anything there applicable here.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. fredfitch says:

    Is NOT at all the same as altruism in humans.

    I can’t even blame jet lag, since we were traveling west.

    Just so excited to have a real keyboard under my fingers again.

    Like

    • pete says:

      Right, Parker wasn’t being portrayed as a racist in TBIS, but his alliance with Gonor and co. was balanced with some tough-guy racial terminology in the beginning chapters, and that terminology hasn’t exactly aged well since 1968.

      Westlake’s choice in using “Dhaba” politics as a background is an interesting way to make a point about how the West (actually, the world powers in the U.N.) was trying to wash its hands of post-colonial Africa. Parker just wanted to make his money and leave New York, and the U.N. intended to rubber-stamp approval of a thoroughly corrupt political apparatus. The Julius Caesar reference points to the upcoming fate of Dhaba: a clumsily executed coup resulting in a bloody civil war.

      You’re on point about the abstract ties between TBIS and Julius Caesar; there’s no satisfactory correspondence between Westlake’s characters and Shakespeare’s. Parker plays the Brutus role in the hesitant conspirator in the beginning, but underestimates the danger of Hoskins like Caesar, assigns luck to competence like Cassius* and makes an extended speech like a bizarro Mark Antony. Some of these things could just be coincidences, and in fact I ended up paring some observations from my review.

      I wonder if The Comedy is Finished used its theatrical inspiration (important enough to be referenced by the manuscript’s working title) in a similar manner. A second look at The Score is also warranted, provided I can keep my urge to analyze under control…

      * maybe

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      • fredfitch says:

        I don’t remember Parker himself using that terminology, though. Stark, as the narrator, uses the word ‘negro,’ which was still commonly used then, and is still frequently used ironically by black people, who also use a much worse word, thus keeping it in popular parlance. You use a word, you keep it alive. That’s a fact. You can make all the rules you like about its use. Just like we make rules about guns. But as long as there are guns, some people will break those rules. That’s just being honest. Remember that Westlake said he got a lot of appreciative fan mail from black men relating to the Parker books.

        Gonor uses the word ‘colored’, referring to the Florida motel they had to stay in, and it’s clear from context that he finds America’s terminology amusing. (To an African, of course, ‘colored’ means something else.) And of course the other white men in the story use worse words (worse because of the history behind them), and we’re supposed to think less of them because of that. Not because they aren’t PC. Because it shows weakness and delusion on their part.

        In my opinion, the terminology used doesn’t make the book age poorly, because it’s used in the right way, in the right context. Take all the offensive language out of Huckleberry Finn, you ruin the book. But people get hung up on words, just as they do on melanin. Parker will never understand any of this. So Parker will never age. Anymore than Huck will.

        Let me do a second post to respond to the rest.

        Like

      • fredfitch says:

        Your primary insight here is that the Shakespeare ref isn’t just thrown in for humor, or to make fun of African garb. It puts an image in our minds, reminds us these aren’t American blacks, that they have their own very different culture and history, that intersects with ours in various ways, many unpleasant. And yes, they are in an era of their politics that greatly resembles that of the Roman civil war that ended with the Republic becoming an Empire, under Augustus. Does Stark think that’s the end of this story? Unlikely.

        The hard part is to discern precisely what Stark (a very specific side of Westlake, more focused and precise, less emotional and humorous) is trying to say here. Westlake was fascinated by Africa, disgusted by colonialism, and generally appalled by racism. But he was never a standard issue guilty kneejerk liberal.

        His own politics can be hard to figure out, because he’s not committed to any one faction, mainly because there is no faction that isn’t afflicted by the common failings of humanity. A pox on all houses, you might say. And there is something of the same thing in Shakespeare play–there are no good guys or bad guys. Just winners and losers. The main winner, Antony, will be a major loser in another Shakespeare play. And Shakespeare knows his audience (even many in the pit) will know that Antony’s triumph is shortlived.

        Parker doesn’t always win, but he’s never a loser. And he never deludes himself that any victory is permanent. He’s quite different from any of the major players in Julius Caesar. So their tragedies will not be his. Parker doesn’t do tragedy, because he doesn’t do hubris. He’ll die someday, and that will just be death. Death is only a tragedy if you expected to live forever.

        There’s nothing exploitative about his relationship with the Dhabans. They want to obtain his services, approach him, and he’s reluctant to get involved in their crap. You say he pleads ignorance of their politics. I say he expresses indifference to them. To everybody’s politics. He only pays attention at all (he mentions having read about Africa in the papers) because he’s learned it’s better to know something about the madness of humans, if you’re going to work with them, or steal from them.

        He doesn’t usually work for hire (only other exception is The Handle, and he never took any money from Karns), but as I said, there’s a teaching element in it that appeals to him, and something about these men interests him.

        I think the challenge for Westlake is to make Parker get involved in something that would normally be of no interest to him. He wants Parker to fight the colonizers, because he himself hates colonialism, hates racism–but Parker wouldn’t care who colonized whom. So it has to take the form of a business arrangement, which then becomes something else. How do you write a book like this without turning it into some kind of tract? I think, by and large, Stark found a way. But it’s hardly a masterful summing up of colonialism or racism. It’s just an experiment, to see how far this genre series can stretch itself.

        And what was the reaction? Maybe one or two obscure editions of this novel (and there are many) have black people on the cover. The racism is there, all right. Not in the book. But in many of its readers. Well, Parker isn’t wrong about us, you know.

        So why is he making the Shakespeare reference? Compare and contrast. This is how they did it, and look how they ended up. Parker does it differently. And Westlake is hoping, against hope, that the colonized peoples of African will do it differently as well. Parker has something to teach them–and us.

        Like

      • pete says:

        That’s a solid argument against my claim on the book, or at least that part of it, not “aging well.”

        When I think of the weakest part of, say, The Wire, I think of the way John Doman’s character Rawls uses racist language in the first episode, followed by deliberate attempts to try pushing him into the non-hero/non-villain category. That kind of rebalancing often feels awkward to me, and is the reason why I put TBIS one notch behind my favorite Parker books (The Man With the Getaway Face, The Handle, and The Rare Coin Score). I still think it’s a very good book, obviously.

        The explicit reference to Julius Caesar may have just as much to do with how that play begins. Brutus and Cassius are alive and in the Senate, only because Caesar granted them amnesty after defeating Pompey at the Battle of Pharsalus. Their betrayal, despite all their words to the contrary, make them self-serving opportunists of the worst kind. I suspect that Gonor and Indindu are telling themselves (and Parker, who doesn’t care) that they’re saving Dhaba, when they are really betraying their President and killing members of his family for money.

        Like

      • fredfitch says:

        I’m not sure there’s enough information to justify that read. Obviously we know that a lot of African revolutionary leaders were corrupted by power, so in retrospect, it doesn’t sound unreasonable, but I think Gonor is an honorable man. (So are they all, all honorable men, except for Hoskins).

        Mandela wasn’t corrupt. Neither was Kenyatta. Both left fairly stable independent nation states behind them, albeit with many lingering problems. Africa is still a shambles in many places, a lot of light-fingered bloody-handed autocrats, but I don’t feel much like throwing stones now, you know?

        Day before yesterday I was in Dublin, waiting for the bus, and I met a couple from Ethiopiawho were there for a conference on the family, based around the Pope’s visit. (Catholics are 1% of Ethiopia’s population.)

        They expressed great enthusiasm for their new government. Ethiopia has a new government? Yeah, and a new rock star PM, youngest on the continent, and of course I’d never heard of him, because I’m an American. (Somewhere Westlake rolls his eyes.)

        Patterns are persistent in all nations, but they don’t ever repeat themselves in precisely the same way. Rome did great things and awful things, and you could argue that all the men in Julius Caesar contributed to that, even if their motives were far from pure. Brutus and Cassius have been lionized by many a revolutionary (and a fair few assassins); Caesar ultimately proved the victory, even in death, with his nephew creating perhaps the most influential state in human history.

        Stark is a pessimist, and who can blame him, but I wouldn’t call him a cynic. He knows nothing ever works out as planned, and he’s not writing about ‘The Revolution’ with starry eyes. A woman is murdered in cold blood. The only reason several small children aren’t is that they’re elsewhere. Formutesca, the character specific to this book who we’re clearly supposed to like and identify with the most, is a party to that murder. And what are his alternatives?

        Idealism is something we claim to want in our leaders, but we also want them to kick ass, and that often means cutting ethical corners.

        LBJ used more racist epithets than the fictional Rawls ever did, there’s no question racism left its mark on him, and yet of all US Presidents, only Lincoln did more for black people in this country. Hell, you could call it a tie. He finished what Lincoln started. And yet the job’s still not done.

        It’s Parker’s cold pragmatism we’re supposed to admire the most here. Know what you want. Figure out how to get it. But don’t compromise too much, or you’ll lose sight of who you are, and then you’re useless, to yourself and everyone else.

        And no, it’s not one of the very best Parkers–bit too far off the reservation–but other than Flashfire, I think they’re all pretty great. And all quite different. It was an experiment worth trying. Not a complete success.

        No experiment ever is. And that’s why history never ends. (While there are still humans to make it.)

        Like

  3. fredfitch says:

    Oh, and about Parker getting left out of a few chapters in this book–of what Parker novel ever written is this not the case?

    It’s part of the format. At some point, Stark leaves Parker and focuses on other characters in the story, some of whom don’t even know Parker (some of whom never even meet him!) Since the point of the books is comparative psychology, comparing and contrasting Parker to everyone else, to underscore how different he is, this is necessary. So why does this bother some readers of the series so much in the case of this book, when it’s true of every single book?

    The only difference I could ever find is that in this case, the characters in question are black people from Africa. Acting as if their agenda matters as much as anyone else’s. As if Parker is just a means to their ends, which he doesn’t mind at all, because that’s how he expects everyone to behave. He’s not angry when the Dhabans refuse his request for help. In their place, he’d have done the same.

    Only Formutesca comes through for him when he needs help, and that’s partly out of respect for a teacher, and partly because he’s still taking the measure of himself as a man. And these are, after all, enemies of his new country they’ll be fighting.

    A seriously underrated work in the canon.

    Like

    • pete says:

      I think the issue for some readers was that Parker wasn’t there for the actual heist, which is where things often go off the rails in the series. Hoskins coming back to be a problem was also telegraphed, one could argue. I liked the book, but I can see where some of the criticism comes from: after 11 books in the series, people are going to have their likes and dislikes established. I take my time between Parker books to avoid becoming, you know, that kind of fan.

      Like

      • fredfitch says:

        Parker isn’t there for the heist in Flashfire, a much weaker novel than this (weakest of the entire series, as I see it), and that never attracted a tenth as much criticism–and got made into a truly horrible film. There is no heist at all in The Jugger, which Westlake hated, but most present-day Stark readers love. In a number of highly regarded Stark novels, the heist takes up a tiny fraction of the book, is over and done with before the story gets properly under way.

        It’s formula fiction, albeit executed at an almost unprecedentedly high level of sophistication (while seeming to be anything but, a neat trick that only Stark ever pulls off 100%, in my experience). Part of reading variations on the same story, over and over, is that sometimes you see plot twists coming. The one nobody should ever fail to see in a Parker novel is that Something Will Go Wrong. And it will usually not be random bad luck, but rather something to do with the erratic whims of human nature. That being one of Stark’s major themes, and if you object to that, you don’t understand what you’re reading. (Or, quite possibly, your own species.)

        So no, I don’t think that’s the issue. I’m not screaming ‘racism’–I am saying race itself (and national origin) is the issue. That the Parkers are treated as an empowerment fantasy by many, and to have the heist itself perpetrated by black Africans, even though Parker was the planner, violates some unacknowledged template of The Way Things Should Be. If you want escapism, you don’t want to be reminded of something most Americans pay little attention to, except when forced.

        Now ask yourself this–there were, as I’ve mentioned, black men reading these books at the time. Westlake got the fan mail (addressed to Stark).

        Ask yourself how they felt about this one. They would presumably have all the same preconceptions about the series that Caucasian readers did. Do you think they reacted the same way to this one? Perhaps they also disliked it. But hardly for the same reasons.

        In my experience, readers rarely know why they like one book more than another. You have a reaction, positive or negative–then you look for something to explain it after the fact.

        I try to look a bit deeper, but no doubt I’m wrong quite often myself.

        Not this time, I don’t think. This isn’t one of the very best Parkers, but the reason it so often gets stuck at the very bottom of the pile is race. That is the one thing that clearly distinguishes it. That at times, it acts as if the internecine agendas of these Africans are more important than the shopworn conventions of the genre the book labors under.

        And that, dare I say it, is revolutionary.

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  4. Pingback: The Sour Lemon Score, by Donald Westlake (as Richard Stark) | gaping blackbird

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