Friday 5 November 2010

The Grofield Files: The Blackbird (1969) by Richard Stark; a Review

Now this is much more like it.

After the rather lacklustre The Dame (1969), the previous book in Donald 'Richard Stark' Westlake's series starring part-time thief/part-time actor Alan Grofield, which in turn followed the first Grofield novel, the slightly better The Damsel (1967), The Blackbird (1969) sees a marked improvement in matters. For one thing, Grofield has more of a purpose this time out.

In the Parker novels in which he appears (The Score, The Handle, etc.), Grofield is perfectly fine: a charming bit part player with a penchant for dramatising his role in the action (and providing his own soundtrack to boot, which plays out in his head). Once Westlake made Grofield the star of the show, however (in The Damsel), I think the writer struggled to work out what exactly Grofield was for. It's as if Westlake really liked the character – or perhaps more accurately liked the idea of the character, as there really wasn't much to Grofield beyond his thespian leanings – and wanted to spend more time with him, but couldn't decide what to do with him once he had the appropriate stage. In The Blackbird, however, Westlake finds more of a meaty role for Grofield.

Previously, Grofield kind of drifted through the action, his motives for staying the course in The Damsel and The Dame highly suspect, if not downright unbelievable, particularly in the latter, where his reasons for going to Puerto Rico in the first place are ill-defined. But in The Blackbird, he's pressganged into service by the US government. The book famously shares its first chapter with Slayground, the fourteenth Parker novel, and opens with Grofield in the middle of an armoured car heist that goes drastically awry when the getaway driver, Laufman, flips the car over in the snow. While Parker makes off with the loot and into the nearby amusement park in Slayground, the next thing Grofield knows he's waking up in hospital with a couple of shadowy government agents looming over him, who offer him a deal: go to work for them, or go to jail. Naturally, Grofield chooses option A.

The reason the government wants to make use of Grofield has to do with his association with two characters from the previous books: General Pozos, president of (fictional) Latin American country Guerrero, who Grofield saved from assassination in The Damsel; and Onum Marba, whom Grofield met in The Dame. Marba is assistant to Colonel Rahgos, president of (also fictional) African nation Undurwa (fictional African countries are something of a running theme in Westlake's work; see also The Black Ice Score, The Hot Rock, etc.), who, along with Pozos, is attending a gathering of Third World leaders in Quebec. The American government wants to find out what the meeting's about, and since Grofield has connections with Pozos and Marba, they reckon he's the ideal man to do some snooping for them.

So, having tried Grofield out as a reluctant adventurer in The Damsel (largely unsuccessfully) and a reluctant detective with a locked-room mystery to solve in The Dame (possibly even less successfully), here Westlake turns Grofield into a reluctant spy. And curiously, it's a better fit for the character. Once he determines there's no way out for him – despite successive escape attempts – Grofield's overwhelming sense of self-preservation kicks in, and he realises he'll have to carry out the mission if he wants to get back to his regular life; he becomes a kind of cut-price James Bond, except without any of the patriotism or idealism – something his US handlers and his eventual accomplice (and cover star/title inspiration), Undurwan aide Vivian Kamdela, can scarcely credit.

There's a slightly harder edge to The Blackbird than there was in the previous two books, so that the switch from the blunt, convincingly realistic Parkerverse of chapter one to the slightly less believable, even occasionally fantastical Grofieldverse thereafter isn't as jarring as it might have been. The violence in the book wouldn't be out of place in a Parker novel, in particular one quite shocking instance of cold-blooded murder – or rather murders – on the part of Grofield himself. Sure, there's a fair bit of Grofield wisecracking – although maybe not as much as before – but that's offset by the harsh fates dealt out to some of the supporting players.

It's a good little book – not quite up there with the Parkers (even the less successful ones), but certainly the best Grofield star vehicle yet. And that bodes well for the final Alan Grofield novel, Lemons Never Lie, which I'm looking forward to even more now...


  1. Without consulting my own notes on the Grofield books, I seem to recall that I thought the first three were enjoyable enough, with The Damsel my favorite and The Blackbird my least, but the whole concept of these novels just seemed--wrong.

    The reason for this, I think, is that I think of Parker as existing not in our universe, but in a parallel universe that's just plain bad and nasty. These books fit into the Parker universe I have in my head about as well as a humorous tale by H.P. Lovecraft would fit into the Cthulhu mythos.

    This is the way geeks think, especially geeks who grew up on science fiction and fantasy where this idea of a consistent universe is important. I don't read much of that stuff anymore, but I think the idea that "this universe must have consistency and rules!" has stuck with me for better or worse (probably worse).

    This sounds like the germination of an essay. Maybe I'll take a stab at it in my next pass through the books.

    Lemons Never Lie? That one definitely fits into the Parker universe.

  2. I know what you mean: I'm naturally inclined to look for inconsistencies from book to book, and even within just one book (and sometimes find them too). That's the comics fan in me. But I try and remind myself that, while Westlake doubtless referred back to previous Parkers when he was writing each one, he probably didn't get too caught up on that kind of thing. For one thing, he was writing too many books to worry about it too much.

    As I said, The Blackbird definitely seemed closer to the meaner Parkerverse than the previous two Grofield books, as if Westlake was feeling his way back to that 'reality', which, as you mention, perhaps culminates in Lemons. I dunno if I see Parker's world as a parallel universe though: I kind of see what you mean in that it's hard and cold and populated by people on the make, but to me that just identifies it as our world. Westlake's writing is so convincing to me that I'm totally prepared to buy his vision as the reality of criminal life back then, and maybe even now.