Thursday, 6 January 2011

Parker Progress Report: A Review of Plunder Squad by Richard Stark

For the Parker completist, there's a lot to love about Plunder Squad. First published in 1972, the fifteenth novel to star Donald 'Richard Stark' Westlake's cold-hearted NFN heister sees not only the return of a couple of supporting characters from previous books in the series and the tying up of a loose end from The Sour Lemon Score (1969, Parker #12), but also a crossover with another book published in the same year – one not written by Westlake.

The possible downside of all these entertaining diversions and revisiting of unfinished business, however, is that Plunder Squad ends up being slightly staccato as a result, the plot advancing in fits and starts and branching off into dead ends – although for me that made the book more unusual and consequently more compelling. I liked some of the cul-de-sacs the story saunters down, and I liked the way Parker is persistently foiled throughout the novel, as his run of bad luck over the past few books continues.

By this stage in the series, it's almost as if Westlake is pretty much pleasing himself, doing whatever he feels like doing in order to keep himself interested, safe, perhaps, in the knowledge that it's a Parker, so it'll sell. For a crime thriller to start with a planned robbery that doesn't happen, move on to another planned robbery that also ultimately doesn't happen, take a detour for an encounter with a character from someone else's book, take another detour for a standoff with a different character from a previous book in the series... that's quite a lot to ask of a regular follower, let alone an uninitiated reader.

Divided up into the Parker novels' traditional four parts, most of the above actually takes place in Part One – which will give you some idea of how eventful Plunder Squad is. The first of those two abortive heists is waylaid by George Uhl, who gave Parker the runaround in The Sour Lemon Score and who Parker unwisely left alive at the end of that story. The second is interrupted by a certain Dan Kearny, a P.I. who comes knocking at the door of the house where Parker and crew are planning the score investigating a murder. Kearny has wandered in from a novel by Westlake's friend Joe Gores, Dead Skip, which, as with Westlake's own Slayground/The Blackbird crossover, shares the scene in Plunder Squad in which Kearny appears. I'll be reading Dead Skip for the next Parker Progress Report (what was that about being a Parker completist...?), so it'll be fascinating to see how that scene plays out in Gores's novel.

(There's actually more that the two books share. I own US first editions of the two novels, which were both published by Random House, using the same typeface, the same interior design – from the title pages to the chapter headers – and with a very similar extent, too: Plunder Squad is 182 pages long, while Dead Skip is 184.)

In Part Two, Parker finally catches up to Uhl, and the two find time to work through their issues (well, in a way...), so it's not until Part Three that we see the makings of a prospective third heist, one which does finally come off this time – a takedown of a truck carrying valuable paintings. Part Three is also the Stark Cutaway, and so we get to meet some of the other members of the string for this particular score, among them Stan Devers, last seen in The Green Eagle Score. In that novel, Devers was a neophyte thief, embarking on his first serious heist: he was very much a proto-Parker, a glimpse at how Parker might have been when he was starting out. In Plunder Squad, Devers is a bit more seasoned (if a little down on his luck), his criminal senses beginning to sharpen. I liked Devers in Green Eagle, and I was pleased to see him return in Plunder Squad.

But the fact that I was so willing to welcome back Devers gave me pause at this point in the novel. Something I've become fleetingly aware of before as I've progressed through the Parker series – although not to this degree – is that I've been so immersed in Parker's amoral world that I've found myself unconsciously complicit in his and his compatriots' actions. It's all too easy to forget that these are stories about bad men doing bad things – and that, I think, is part of Westlake's genius with these books, which is to make the stealing of money and goods and the violence that that entails seem everyday – mundane, even. Time and again in Plunder Squad – and in all the Parker novels – Westlake has us so wrapped up in events – Parker's hunt for Uhl, the assault on the convoy transporting the paintings – that we barely question the amoral nature of them. I suspect what he's doing is crediting the reader with enough intelligence to stop and reflect every now and then, which is kind of cool when you think about it.

Mind you, Westlake doesn't help matters by making a fair number of the cast of Plunder Squad damnably likable, in particular Ed Mackey, the ringleader of the third heist. But then, you could also make a case for Ed (and am I right in thinking 'Ed Mackey' is too close to 'Earl Macklin' from the 1973 movie of The Outfit for it to be a coincidence? Ed and Earl certainly share some characteristics...) being the Stark Stooge of the piece, particularly in light of events post-heist. In fact, thinking about it, Parker and thus far Grofield and Handy McKay aside, few of the occasional guest stars in the series have escaped unscathed. So maybe there's a morality at work in the novels after all. Whatever the case, for its awkward but beguiling structure, for its bursts of jolting violence, and for its convincing and charismatic characters, Plunder Squad is a real treat – both for hardcore Parker fans and the more casual enthusiast.

(NB: I discuss Plunder Squad again in this post, from the perspective of how events play out in Joe Gores's Dead Skip.)

2 comments:

matthewasprey said...

I'd like to comment at length on 'Plunder Squad' but I'm short of time. Let me just say that it's one of the better Parkers I've read. I'm looking forward to reading 'Deadly Edge' and the 'Slayground'/'Butcher's Moon' double. Westlake was writing very well in the late 60s and early 70s. Around this time he wrote the excellent early Dortmunder 'Bank Shot'. Keep up the good work.

Louis XIV, 'The Sun King' (a.k.a. Nick Jones) said...

I'm with you on it being one of the better Parkers, Matthew. I was actually quite surprised by how much I liked it. Westlake was definitely on a roll at this point: Bank Shot's a cracker too.