Tuesday 29 November 2011

Parker Progress Report: Butcher's Moon (Parker #16, 1974) by Richard Stark; Review

(NB: a version of this post also appears on The Violent World of Parker blog.)

Well I still haven't quite made up my mind as regards which spy fiction series I'll be blogging about next, but I have decided, you'll doubtless be delighted to learn, what my next few Violent World of Parker cross-posts will be on: Butcher's Moon. 

Butcher's Moon marks the end of both the first phase of Donald "Richard Stark" Westlake's Parker crime novel series, and the first phase of my reviewing trawl through the Parkers. I've actually got three posts planned on the book: this first one, which is, obviously, a review; a look at the Random House first edition of the novel, in particular an ex-library copy I found fairly recently, but also the book's design and collectibility; and a look at the first British edition as well.

But let's begin with the substantive issue, namely the novel itself. First published in 1974, Butcher's Moon is not only the capstone on Parker phase one – i.e. 1962–1974 – but also the culmination of everything Westlake had been doing in the series to this point. Westlake's been quoted as saying that he stopped writing Parker stories (for twenty-three years, that is, until he started again with Comeback in 1997) because those stories just stopped coming to him. On the evidence of Butcher's Moon, it's easy to see why. The novel reintroduces characters from almost all fifteen of its predecessors in a tale that is, in the first instance, a direct sequel to the previous Parker-but-one, Slayground (Parker #14, 1971), but also, and perhaps more audaciously, a continuation of, and completing of, a subplot introduced in the very first book in the series, The Hunter (1962).

Parker's run of bad luck – see the four novels from The Sour Lemon Score (Parker #12, 1969) to Plunder Squad (Parker #15, 1972) – persists as the story opens. A botched jewellery store job leaves him out of pocket and in dire need of cash, so he calls up Alan Grofield, the actor-turned-thief with whom he worked on the heist at the start of Slayground/The Blackbird (Grofield #3, 1969 – the two novels sharing an opening chapter, remember) – a heist that resulted in Grofield being hospitalized and Parker abandoning a stashed bag of dough in an amusement park in the Midwest city of Tyler. Grofield is similarly on his uppers, his summer stock theatre in Mead Grove, Indiana continuing to drain his resources and the events of his last solo outing, Lemons Never Lie (Grofield #4, 1971), leaving him without a pot to piss in. So when Parker suggests they head to Tyler to retrieve their loot, Grofield readily accepts.

Predictably, once they arrive in Tyler and search Fun Island, there's no trace of the money, so – much as Parker did in The Hunter – he and Grofield make a nuisance of themselves with the local Outfit (i.e. Mob) operation in an effort to track down the boodle. Adolf Lozini, the Mafia boss who led the hunt for Parker through Fun Island in Slayground, is still in charge – but only just. There's a coup d'état brewing, and the last thing the usurpers need is Parker and Grofield making things more difficult. But successfully and violently muddy the waters they do, until Grofield is shot (again; see also Parker #8, The Handle, 1966/Grofield #1, The Damsel, 1967) and then held hostage and Parker has to resort to calling in help from a Dirty Dozen (including himself) of former associates from previous books – among them Handy McKay from The Man with the Getaway Face (Parker #2, 1963), Stan Devers from The Green Eagle Score (Parker #10, 1967) and Ed Mackey from Plunder Squad – to carry out a series of jobs on Outfit enterprises in and around Tyler before hitting the Outfit men themselves.

There's a school of thought which reasons that Butcher's Moon represents the strongest evidence yet of a softening, a humanizing of the initially emotionless, machine-like Parker, a development that can be traced back to his hooking up with Claire in The Rare Coin Score (Parker #9, 1967). Frankly, I don't buy it. Parker cheerfully – or, more accurately, dourly – murders his way through Butcher's Moon, gunning down one man on a sidewalk just to send a message and visiting an apocalyptic vengeance on the hapless mobsters at the close of the book. If that's a "softer" Parker, my name's Alan Marshall.

Those who present the case for Parker becoming more human – the estimable Max Allan Collins in this Mystery*File review, say, or more recently, by inference, the effervescent Tucker Stone in this Factual Opinion review – point to Parker gathering together his "friends" to take on the Outfit, and more specifically to a scene two-thirds into the novel once he's done so. Taking the question of the relationship between Parker and his associates first, I think it's a mistake to view the heisters Parker brings to Tyler as his pals. Sure, they're men he can trust – to an extent – but they're hardly friends; it's not as if Parker hangs out with any of them when he's not working (inviting the guys upstate, Parker in Bermuda shorts, the convivial host, slapping some steaks on the grill, passing round a six-pack... nah, can't see it), and for their part, they're essentially in Tyler to make some money. Parker is basically assembling a hit squad of co-workers, much as he did in The Outfit (Parker #3, 1963), with a definite aim in mind.

As to the specific scene, that hinges on why Parker is even bothering to get Grofield back – the argument being that, hitherto, Parker would have done the practical thing and left him behind. I suspect, however, that there's something more meta going on here. It's a question that Westlake himself addresses after Parker explains that the twelve of them will launch an assault on the Outfit to retrieve Grofield, after which we get this passage: 

His intensity had startled them a little. Nobody said anything until Handy McKay, speaking very quietly, said, "That's not like you."

What kind of shit was this? Parker had expected a back-up from Handy, not questions. He said, "What's not like me?"

"A couple things," Handy said. "For one, to go to all this trouble for somebody else. Grofield, me, anybody. We all of us here know we got to take care of ourselves, we're not the Travelers Aid Society. You, too. And the same with Grofield. What happens to him is up to him."

"Not when they send him to me piece by piece," Parker said. "If they kill him, that's one thing. If they turn him over to the law, get him sent up, that's his lookout. But these bastards rang me in on it."

Handy spread his hands, letting that point go. "The other thing," he said, "is revenge. I've never seen you do anything but play the hand you were dealt. Now all of a sudden you want a bunch of people dead."

Parker got to his feet. He'd been patient a long time, he'd explained things over and over, and now he was getting itchy. Enough was enough. "I don't care," he said. "I don't care if it's like me or not. These people nailed my foot to the floor, I'm going round in circles, I'm not getting anywhere. When was it like me to take lumps and just walk away? I'd like to burn this city to the ground, I'd like to empty it right down to the basements. And I don't want to talk about it anymore, I want to do it. You're in, Handy, or you're out. I told you the setup, I told you what I want, I told you what you'll get for it. Give me a yes or a no."

What Westlake is doing here is directly addressing us, the readers. Westlake doesn't care that it's slightly out of character for Parker to want to rescue Grofield: the author simply wishes to write a climactic assault on the Outfit compound, which he subsequently does, with nerve-jangling bravado. It could be argued that the transition is clumsily handled, that for a brief moment the gears and levers of the plot become visible; but Westlake understands this, admits that's the case, and dares us to either go along with him or give up on the story. Get on board, he's saying, or get gone.

Structurally, Butcher's Moon marks something of a departure from previous books in the series. Westlake dispenses with the traditional four parts in favour of a continuous, largely linear narrative. Again, that's in keeping with both the apogeic nature of the enterprise – there's little time for Stark Cutaways as we barrel towards the finish line – and the more experimental aspects of the late-1960s/early-1970s Parker novels. That Westlake arrived at what is in essence a standard novel approach having spent the previous four Parkers tinkering with structure is perhaps surprising, but by dint of its formal ordinariness and additional – but again more familiar in comparison to other, non-Stark novels – length (it's a lot longer than the Parkers' typical 160 pages), perversely, Butcher's Moon actually stands out from the crowd. 

Butcher's Moon isn't, I don't think, the best book in the initial run of the series; for my money that's still The Seventh/The Split (Parker #7, 1966), which has a terrific Parker-perplexing set-up, a blistering blood-soaked finale and a killer last line. But it's one of the best, certainly in the top five, and a fitting finale for the first phase of this brilliant, unique crime series.

As ever, you can read Violent World of Parker proprietor Trent's thoughts on Butcher's Moon on the book's dedicated page, but next up from me: the 1974 Random House first edition of the novel...


  1. I just read it myself for the first time (only four more of the later crop of Parkers to go now, ::sigh::), and seeing that you only posted this a short while back, I'd like to chime in.

    First of all, I don't think this is the absolute best Parker novel, AS a novel, but it's the most important one, because it's a summation of what Westlake had been trying to accomplish with these books. It's the key to the Parker Mythos, so to speak. I can see why it was out of print so long, because there's absolutely no point in reading it until you've read all the installments that came before it (preferably a few of the Grofields as well).

    Anyway, I think you missed something. Yes, there's a meta aspect to Parker deigning to defend his decision to get Grofield back, alive or dead. Yes, Westlake probably is in there somewhere, responding to quibbles from readers (which I assume he was getting via old-fashioned snail mail and maybe at book signings and the occasional over-opinionated cab driver.

    But what Parker does is completely in character, and this goes all the way back to The Hunter.

    We keep hearing that Parker has no sense of right and wrong, but that's wrong. He has his OWN sense of rightness and wrongness--it isn't based on standard morality, though. It's based on what FEELS right to him, LOOKS right, SMELLS right. It's a rough instinctive sense of aesthetics, not ethics, that moves him. As Westlake hinted many times, Parker is an artist, and his jobs are his canvas. And woe unto those that smear his brushwork.

    For Grofield to die or to go to prison falls within the accepted criteria to Parker--for him to be cut up and mailed to Parker a piece at a time, to Parker, is not playing the game by the proper rules. It offends him on a very deep level. It enrages him, because it violates his unspoken, and largely unacknowledged sense of right and wrong--it's wrong because it FEELS wrong, the same way Huck Finn, the boy with absolutely no sense of morals knows that sending Jim back into slavery would be wrong. Huck says "All right, I'll go to hell", and Parker says "I don't care if it's like me or not."

    To the mob guys, it makes perfect sense to give Parker the finger, so to speak--different culture, different rules. To Parker, it's the final straw. He needs to do more than kill these guys--he needs to correct their mistake, erase their insult. He needs to get Grofield out of there. If Grofield died in the process, that would be perfectly fine. Okay, probably not to Grofield, but you know what I mean.

    Yes, it also serves the interests of the story, but Westlake didn't HAVE to put Grofield in jeopardy, any more than he had to put Claire in danger on several previous occasions, to the dissatisfaction of many a Parker purist--he could have just written it so that Parker had to get the band back together to get his money and finish these mobsters off before they finished him.

    Parker's response to seeing that severed finger is the result of Westlake shaking Parker's cage, still trying to get a straight answer out of him--"Who are you? What makes you tick? How far would you go, and how far wouldn't you go? What do you care about? If it isn't friendship or loyalty that makes you stick your neck out for people now and again, what the hell IS it?"

    Parker's spoken response may be less than entirely satisfactory, but with him it's always deeds before words, and his actions tell us all we needed to know.

  2. I think that's a fair comment, Chris. And your mention of Claire reminds me that Parker went after her tormentors in a big way in Deadly Edge. Thanks for the additional insight – and if you haven't seen them yet, there are further comments on this post's Violent World of Parker counterpart post.

  3. Parker wasn't avenging Claire in Deadly Edge, though. In his mind, those two crazed hippies were dead men before they ever set foot in New Jersey, because they were a threat to him and his money. He's concerned about Claire, but he's not angry they treated her that way, because he expected it. He actually prepared her for it with a cover story. He'd have behaved much the same way if she was some random woman who just took messages for him.

    Parker wasn't expecting that finger. It caught him offguard, and brought out something more than just the cold calculated killing we usually see from him. He knows this about himself--certain types of behavior bring out a rage in him that can only be allayed by balancing the scales--certain lives have to end, certain monies have to be collected, and in this particular case, his colleague has to be retrieved.

    We know that Claire is important to him, fills a need that nobody else can fill. Whether he feels anything for Grofield other than professional respect remains an unsolved mystery. But professional respect is no small thing when you're talking about Parker.

  4. Very true about the rage. I'm reminded of The Seventh, and the frustration and fury the nameless foil causes Parker. And then there's Lynn in The Hunter; it's easy to forget Parker was once married, and that Parker's pursuit of Mal wasn't just about the money.

    Parker's often called emotionless – I've called him that myself – but I don't think that's accurate. He does feel things, but his feelings are, as you say, guided by his own particular morality and sense of justice. An exploration of Parker's emotions across the series could be a fruitful line of enquiry. You up for a guest post, Chris?

  5. Maybe he's a Vulcan. They have seething emotions they rigidly suppress most of the time, and wish everyone else would be logical like them. Did Westlake ever say anything about the shape of Parker's ears?

    I'd consider a guest post. What would my cut of the take be? ;)

  6. Now THERE's a "fascinating" avenue of "exploration": the similarities twixt Parker and Star Trek. I can see some of Spock AND Kirk in Parker... although now I've typed that, I'm worried I've invented a new strand of slash fiction...

    As to your cut for a guest post, I'll let you do the math: what's nought percent of sod all...?

  7. http://images.cheezburger.com/completestore/2010/8/26/c3e8932a-e63f-4425-af55-7554318aef21.jpg

    Spooky, isn't it?

    It's not such a big leap, actually, seeing how much science fiction Westlake wrote in his early career. I'm sure he watched at least a few episodes of Star Trek back in the 60's.

    But if there was some kind of influence, it would be Roddenberry and his colleagues channeling Westlake, rather than vice-versa--now that I think on it, that pon-far mating frenzy followed by long periods of total abstinence does bear a certain resemblance to Parker's sex life in the Pre-Claire novels.

    Anyway, if you want me to write something up, let me know. Handy McKay usually knows where I am. Well, no he doesn't.

  8. Drop me an email on existentialennui@gmail.com when you have time, Chris.

  9. dear Parker experts: I am ashamed to write this but I I just plowed through Slayground, Plunder squad and Butcher's moon last night and I can't for the life of me understand this: doesn't Mackey die at the end of plunder squad? I surely am missing something thus I turn to you for assistance
    thank you in adance

  10. Now you mention it, bw, that was something I think played at the back of my mind when I read Butcher's Moon. Let me check, and I'll come back to you.

  11. Y'know what, bw? You're absolutely right: Ed Mackey does die at the end of Plunder Squad. And yet there he is, with Brenda in tow, in Butcher's Moon. I think I did dimly register his miraculous resurrection in Butcher's Moon, but fair play to you for pointing it out for definite. And what's more, Mackey returns in Comeback too. Deserves further exploration, I feel...

  12. You know who else reappears in Butcher's Moon? Slade and Trask from The Fugitive Pigeon! A little treat for longtime fans of Westlake's funny work.