Thursday 26 August 2010

Parker Progress Report: The Sour Lemon Score by Richard Stark

Wow, this is a mean one.

There's a weird morality that weaves through Donald 'Richard Stark' Westlake's Parker novels. For the most part, despite all the violence, the heists, the mayhem, the only people who get hurt or meet untimely ends are those who share Parker's amoral world: criminals and lowlifes. Regular members of the public are generally left untouched. There's a string of bodies across the Parker books, but they're either part of Parker's crew, or silly buggers who've crossed him somehow, and either way they're likely on the wrong side of the law anyway. Presumably, even when Parker and co. hit a bank or a payroll, the poor schmucks whose life savings are deposited there or who are waiting for their hard-earned cash would be covered by insurance; the institution might lose out, or the insurance company, but not the individual.

Allison & Busby HB, 1986
There are exceptions, however, and when they occur, they're all the more shocking as a result. Right back in the first novel in the series, 1962's The Hunter, when Parker's staking out the Outfit hotel in New York from a hairdresser's across the way, he gags a woman so he can keep her quiet while he keeps watch. Unfortunately she's asthmatic, and dies. When he discovers this, Parker's disturbed; not because he particularly feels for the woman, more because her death was unnecessary, untidy. That's about as much emotion as you're going to get out of Parker: when regular joes occasionally wander into the firing line, he doesn't feel bad out of any kind of empathy – he just knows that the death of an innocent will complicate things and maybe bring unwanted heat. Even so, that is a kind of morality, if not on Parker's part then certainly Westlake's. And in The Sour Lemon Score – number 12 in the series, following The Black Ice Score, and a bruising book even by the standards of Stark – the fates of a number of innocent bystanders lend the novel an added level of jolting horror.

It's not just innocents that meet gruesome ends though, or who provide the shocks. The book opens with a bank job that goes off without a hitch, but as soon as Parker and his three cohorts hole up in their hideout, things start going spectacularly south. Westlake hits us with a couple of killings that come out of nowhere, delivered in his blunt, no-frills prose, and as ever all the more impactful for it. From there, Parker embarks on a quest to recover the lost loot, one which involves him trekking up and down the Eastern Seaboard on the trail of the betrayer, George Uhl.

Allison & Busby PB, 1991
This chase provides the impetus for the plot, such as it is; as he races from city to city Parker's forever one step behind, to the extent that he even pauses at one point to reflect that his efforts could be considered comedic if they're weren't so bloody frustrating (prefiguring Westlake's Dortmunder novels). Along the way he encounters a former ally of Uhl's, Matt Rosenstein, and inadvertently sets Rosenstein off in pursuit of the money too. Rosenstein acts as an interesting counterpoint to Parker, and this is where Westlake starts to play once again with the possibility of a moral core at the centre of Parker's amoral universe. Rosenstein's utter amorality throws Parker's relative morality into sharp relief: where Parker is reluctant to inflict injury on innocents, Rosenstein positively revels in it, cheerfully maiming and raping his way across the novel. Parker may be a bad man, but at least he's restrained by his single-mindedness: the score is what counts. Rosenstein's just a complete and utter bastard.

That nastiness reaches its apex at the climax of the book. Rosenstein and his lover, Paul Brock, hole up at the suburban family home of Uhl's old high-school buddy, Ed Saugherty, where Uhl had hidden out briefly. While they wait for Uhl to get back in touch with Saugherty and thus identify where the money from the heist is, Rosenstein whiles the hours away making use of Saugherty's wife (as Rosenstein himself reasons, he may have a male lover, but that don't make him gay). This mostly happens 'off-page', but it doesn't make it any less distasteful.

What we end up with is a kind of 'Parker to the rescue' scenario, if only inadvertently. Parker finally works out that the suitcase full of money is with Saugherty, and launches an assault on the house. So Westlake pits the amoral anti-hero against the even more amoral villain, with the lives of five innocent bystanders – Saugherty, his wife, and their three kids – at stake. But Westlake still isn't done with the questions of morality, because there's a sting in the tail that potentially turns the whole matter on its head, leaving us with the possibility of one last corruption that'll either turn your stomach or leave you with a wicked smile on your face, depending on how dark your sense of humour is.

Our Stark Stooge this time out is probably George Uhl (although his eventual fate isn't quite what you'd expect compared to previous Stark Stooge performances), but you could make a similar stooge case for Rosenstein, Brock, and maybe even Saugherty. Either way we do get a solid Stark Cutaway too in the traditional position of Part Three, bouncing between Uhl, Brock, Rosenstein and others in a mix of flashbacks and fill-ins.

Next up it's Parker #13, Deadly Edge, which I suspect may well continue this mean streak. Bring it on.

Wednesday 25 August 2010

The Secret Servant by Gavin Lyall: Book Review (Hodder & Stoughton, 1980)

Hodder & Stoughton 1980
British thriller writer Gavin Lyall may not be completely forgotten, but he is sadly – and unjustly – increasingly overlooked. Most (possibly all now) of his books are out of print, a turn of events that's all the more striking when you consider that from the 1960s to the 1980s he was one of Britain's foremost action and suspense authors, with bestsellers on both sides of the pond. For the first fifteen years of his career he crafted a string of first-person novels often featuring hard-bitten pilots caught up in international treasure hunts and the like, but after the publication of Judas Country in 1975 Lyall was beset by writer's block, and his next novel, The Secret Servant, didn't appear until 1980.

The Secret Servant actually began life as a proposal for a BBC TV series, eventually broadcast in 1984 with Charles Dance in the role of Harry Maxim. Lyall went on to write a further three books starring Maxim, an ex-soldier and former member of the SAS seconded to 10 Downing Street as a troubleshooter. Major Maxim is damaged goods as The Secret Servant opens; the first scene in the book has Harry witnessing the death of his wife, as the plane she's in disintegrates while he watches helplessly from the ground. Lyall's elegant prose is evident from the off; it's what marks him out from other thriller writers, a wry, sometimes world-weary tone that acts as a lens through which events are viewed. In lesser hands that might diminish the action, but Lyall's understatement conversely lends certain scenes a greater impact – the old maxim (pardon the pun) of less is more. Take the first paragraph or so of the book, particularly the part where Lyall plays on the relative speeds of light and sound:

To Harry Maxim it seemed as if his wife died twice. He was watching the boxy little Skyvan climbing slowly away up the white-hot desert sky when it suddenly shuddered. A puff of smoke flicked out behind and immediately dissolved. Then one wing twisted gently off and fluttered away and the aeroplane was just a thing tumbling down towards the plain.

And all the time he could hear the distant whine of the Skyvan when it was still flying smoothly and Jennifer was still living...

Pan 1982
That final line, matter-of-fact as it is, only increases the horror of the situation. Lyall deploys this understatement throughout the book (and indeed throughout all of his books), sometimes mixed with a sardonic wit, either in the descriptions or in the gallows humour of some of the characters. And the characters, in particular the supporting ones, are the real gems here. Maxim himself is fine – a solid, flawed hero type – but his main co-stars, George Harbinger and Agnes Algar, are sublime.

Harbinger is a private secretary to the Prime Minister (who he calls Headmaster) and Maxim's direct boss at Number 10. He's akin to Sir Humphrey in Yes, Minister, except perhaps even more cynical and with more of a taste for the booze. He forms a kind of double-act with Agnes Algar from Box 500 – a.k.a. MI5, the domestic security service – who for her part takes endless pleasure in needling Harbinger. The two of them pop up throughout the novel, offering commentary on Maxim's exploits and a guiding hand when needed, and they're invariably thoroughly entertaining.

Coronet 1991
As to the plot, Lyall does a decent job of keeping us guessing right up till the end, as a fake terrorist incident, an Eastern Bloc defection and the direction of Britain's nuclear deterrent policy become linked via a mysterious letter. There are some good action sequences, in particular when Maxim decamps to Ireland and tangles with a Soviet agent (whom he later meets for a drink), but it's the scenes depicting the inner workings of Whitehall and the shady world of espionage and counter-espionage that are the most compelling, and which don't come across as dated as you might think: the British Civil Service is much as it ever was, and while the USSR may be gone the Great Game goes on even today. The climax of the book involves a flashback to World War II and a suitably shocking skeleton in a closet, as the contents of the wayward letter are finally revealed.

As for Harry, he's like a blunt instrument, ruffling feathers and raising eyebrows wherever he goes, much to the amusement of Agnes and the exasperation of George. And with Maxim's card now marked by the KGB (or Greyfriars, as George calls them), it's a safe bet he'll be butting heads with his shadowy Soviet nemesis again in subsequent books in the series.

Tuesday 24 August 2010

Must Be Thursday 26/8/10

Well then. Here's the thing. Last week I had a bit of a whinge about how these weekly Must Be Thursday posts weren't terribly interesting and I couldn't see the point in doing them any more. But last week's Must Be Thursday did get a reasonable number of views in the end, so I figured, what the hell, I'll do one this week. So I wrote it, read it back, and by Christ it was boring. So I deleted it. Which means that's probably it for Must Be Thursday. I might bring it back occasionally if I feel an overwhelming urge to write about that week's new comics, but otherwise, that's yer lot.

Oh, and these are the comics I'll probably get this week. Think yourselves lucky you don't have to read my tedious thoughts about them:

Action #892
Batman #702
Superman Batman #75
Wonder Woman #602
Avengers #4
Captain America #609
Punisher Max Happy Ending (One shot)

Monday 23 August 2010

Donald Westlake/Richard Stark Shelf Porn (Slight Return)

Hmm. I'm rapidly running out of space on the bookcase shelf devoted to Donald Westlake/Richard Stark. The Westlake/Stark first editions have practically crowded out any other novels, with only a couple of Peter O'Donnell and Joe Gores books still hanging in there for dear life:

Westlake Shelf: Left Hand Side
Westlake Shelf: Right Hand Side
And they'll have to make way for a couple more Westlake Scores soon. But then what? What happens when the Westlake Shelf is full? Do I just... stop?

A Richard Stark/Donald Westlake 'Alan Grofield' Book Cover Gallery

So then, with the arrival of The Dame, it's time to take a look at the covers for the four books Donald 'Richard Stark' Westlake wrote about actor-turned-thief Alan Grofield. I've not included any Books on Tape editions, and there are two Hodder & Stoughton UK editions I've yet to find images of (The Dame and The Blackbird), but otherwise this is as complete as I could make it. Enjoy.

The Damsel

Macmillan, US, hardback, 1967
Signet, US, paperback, 1969

Hodder & Stoughton, UK, hardback, 1968 
Hodder & Stoughton 1968 (back cover; jacket by Michael Dempsey)

Rivages, France, paperback, 1988
Foul Play/Countryman, US, paperback, 1990

The Dame

Macmillan, US, hardback, 1969
Macmillan 1969 (back cover; jacket by Muni Lieblein)

Foul Play/Countryman, US, paperback, 1990
Rivages, France, paperback, 1993

The Blackbird

Macmillan, US, hardback, 1969
Macmillan 1969 (back cover; jacket by Jack Wolf)

Gallimard, France, hardback (?), 1971
Foul Play/Countryman, US, paperback, 1990

Lemons Never Lie

World, US, hardback, 1971
World 1971 (back cover; jacket by Milton Charles)

Foul Play/Countryman, US, paperback, 1990
Hard Case Crime, US, paperback, 2006

Westlake Score: The Dame by Richard Stark (Macmillan First Edition)

This one took a bloody age to turn up from the States, longer even than the length of time I was waiting for my first edition of Plunder Squad to arrive, which was delayed by the Icelandic volcano back in April. Still, it's here, and here it is:

A US first edition hardback of The Dame by Richard Stark/Donald Westlake, published by The Macmillan Company in 1969 as part of their Cock Robin Mystery line, with a dustjacket designed (and illustrated) by Muni Lieblein. And it is a lovely jacket; this may well be my favourite jacket design of the four Alan Grofield novels, and ranks pretty high in the list of Richard Stark jackets too.

This is the second of Stark/Westlake's books to star actor/thief/Parker cohort Grofield, following on from 1967's The Damsel. Its non-arrival was in danger of holding up my progress with the Parker novels: my plan was to read all the Stark books, including the Grofield ones, in order, but I've had to press on whilst waiting for The Dame to arrive, and now I'm in the midst of The Sour Lemon Score (Parker #12, 1969). Really, in the fictional timeline of the Parker universe, The Dame should slot in around The Rare Coin Score (Parker #9, 1967), as the events of The Dame take place directly after the events of The Damsel (at the start of The Dame Grofield's just left the Mexican motel he's shacked up in with Ellie from that novel), which in turn takes place directly after The Handle (Parker #8, 1966). But no matter. I'm reading The Dame now, alongside The Sour Lemon Score, so I'll have finished it by the time I get to Slayground (Parker #14, 1971), which of course shares its first chapter with the next Grofield novel, The Blackbird (1969).

Confused? Tell me about it.

Anyway, The Dame proved the trickiest of the Grofield books to track down at an affordable price; there are a few Foul Play Press/Countryman paperbacks floating about on line for about £20, but other than that you're looking at US first editions upwards of £50, and all in the States. I couldn't find a single copy for sale online of the UK 1970 Hodder & Stoughton hardback first edition, so the US edition it had to be.

Intriguingly, Westlake's dedication in this book is a little different to his other books. Usually his dedications are to friends, family members or fellow writers. In The Dame, however, the dedication is to a fictional character – his own fictional character, in fact. It reads, simply, "to Parker". Of course, the first twelve Parker novels don't carry dedications at all, probably because they were originally published as cheap, mass-market paperbacks, and dedications are the kinds of things you see in more upmarket, prestigious hardbacks. It's a little-remarked-upon curiosity that the Parker novels didn't make it into hardback first editions until Random House picked up the rights with Deadly Edge in 1971, and yet the Grofield books were published in hardback right from the off in 1967.

So, with the arrival of The Dame, I now have all of the Grofield novels:

Which means it's time for a Grofield cover gallery!