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.
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
- 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.
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.