Sunday, February 14, 2010

Two sides of a coin, or, Parker and Dortmunder, Westlake and Stark

What better way to commemorate the St. Valentine's Day Massacre than by turning our attention to a heartless criminal?

Fans of Parker and Donald E. Westlake will enjoy this brief interview recently dug up by Trent, the proprietor of the Violent World of Parker site:

In one of the Parker novels--I think it's Plunder Squad--Parker explains why he has no problem with Brenda Mackey, wife and constant companion of his fellow heister Ed Mackey. Parker tends to view women as little but sources of trouble. He's a misogynist, but his misogyny, like all his other bad traits, is rooted in what he sees as practicality: time and again, he's watched men screw up a job because a woman turned their heads.

Brenda Mackey, however, escapes Parker's ire, and the reason is telling: she knows who she is, and, perhaps more important, likes who she is. As Parker puts it to himself, most people don't know who they are, and, if they do, they don't like who they are, wishing instead to be someone or something else, bigger or more impressive. Trying to be that person inevitably gets them--and those around them--into trouble. Brenda's self-knowledge, on the other hand, makes her a rock, reliable and safe.

That's what I love about the video above. There's nothing revelatory in Westlake's answers; his interviews over the years tended to feature a lot of the same questions, and thus the same well-rehearsed answers. Even so, it's a joy to watch him deliver them here, because he exudes a sense of pleasant contentment. It's impossible to watch that interview and not come away thinking that this is a man who knew himself and his place, and liked both--an impression that jibes with the testimony of friends and acquaintances. It's a quality I greatly prize, and to find it in someone who at the same time had the ambition to continually set himself complicated writing problems rather than resting on his laurels is remarkable.

The interview also seems like a good excuse to share a favorite passage from Jimmy the Kid, the Dortmunder novel that Westlake wrote in 1974, in which Dortmunder's crew attempts a kidnapping based on a plot they find in a crime novel called Child Heist, by none other than Richard Stark. Child Heist of course doesn't exist; in reality, the Stark novel that Westlake wrote that same year was the absolutely staggering Butcher's Moon, whose gripping, Red Harvest-like bloodbath would exhaust the Parker character for two decades.

What I love about this passage from Jimmy the Kid is the way that it reveals the continuity of approach between those two halves of Westlake's writing personality--tell me you can't imagine this description, soured by seriousness, being used to introduce a slightly corrupt businessman in a Parker novel who's about to find himself in over his head:
Herbert Harrington plucked his white handkerchief from his suit coat's breast pocket and patted the tiny bead of perspiration that gleamed on his pale high forehead. A calm, methodical, successful corporation attorney of fifty-seven, he was used to emergencies and crises that ran at a Wall Street pace: weeks of gathering storm clouds, spotted with occasional conferences or pubic rumor denials, then a flurry of phone calls, a massing of capital along the disputed border, and then perhaps three days or a week or even a month of concentrated buying, selling, merging, bankruptcy declarations and the like. Drama with sweep to it, emotional climaxes as carefully grounded and prepared for as in grand opera.

But this. They kidnap the boy at four o'clock in the afternoon, and by nine o'clock the same night they're demanding one hundred fifty thousand dollars for him. In old bills. In an equivalent situation on Wall Street, it would be three or four working days before anybody even admitted the boy had been taken. Then, there'd be a period of weeks or months when the kidnappers would publicly maintain the poster that they meant to keep the boy, had no interest in selling him, and wouldn't even consider any offers that might come their way. This logjam, assisted by continued denials from Herbert Harrington or his spokesmen that (a) he was interested in negotiating a repurchase, (b) that he was in a cash or tax position to make such a repurchase possible, or (c) that in fact he had ever had such a son at all, would eventually be broken by tentative feelers from both sides. Dickering, threats, go-betweens, all the panoply of negotiation would then be mounted and gone through like the ritual of High Mass, and it would be even more weeks before anything like a dollar amount was ever mentioned. And in fact dollars would be the very least of it; there would be stock options, rebates, one-for-one stock transfers, sliding scales, an agreement with some meat on it.
As for Butcher's Moon, well, you'll have to wait just a bit: it's on track to be republished by my employers, the University of Chicago Press, in the spring of 2011. Until then, you might occupy yourself by pre-ordering a copy of the final, long-lost Westlake novel, Memory, which Hard Case Crime will publish in April. As Parker would remind you, it's always good to be prepared.

1 comment:

  1. The documentary of parker has been great to heard this. He always taught appropriate and prominent decision. He has views and opinions that are our in surroundings.