When Richard Stark (a/k/a Donald Westlake) wrote a new Parker novel for the first time in over twenty years, he also resumed using the gimmick of starWhen Richard Stark (a/k/a Donald Westlake) wrote a new Parker novel for the first time in over twenty years, he also resumed using the gimmick of starting each novel with the word ‘When’ again. So I guess I gotta follow suit in my reviews of them.
Parker doesn’t seem to have aged a bit when he hooks up with a couple of other heisters to steal the cash collected by a big time evangelist at one of his stadium appearances. Despite their inside man being shaky, the job goes off without a hitch and they’ve got an ingenious hiding place to lay low until the heat dies down. Of course, it’s never that easy for Parker, and he ends up trying to keep various people from swiping the loot while eluding the police.
This edition has a really interesting introduction from Lawrence Block who reveals that Westlake never intended to stop writing Parker novels after Butcher’s Moon, but for some reason all of his attempts to start a new one withered and died until this one finally clicked.
I don’t think any of the ones written after the long lay off are quite up to the standards of the best of the earlier Parker novels. Rereading this now after going through all the others and after checking out some of Darwyn Cook’s excellent graphic novel adaptations with their retro vibe, I think that Parker worked better in that 1960-70s time frame. There was always something that seemed a bit off about Parker in more modern times. He should be working for and against sly hustlers of that era, not having to contend with punks whose idea of a big time crime is stealing tapes from video stores.
However, these are relatively minor gripes. Westlake was far too good to let this series be anything but entertaining, and a Parker novel is still a Parker novel even if he seems a bit out of his natural environment here....more
When we meet Parker, we don’t know much about him. He’s just a guy with shabby clothes and a bad attitude walking across the George Washington BridgeWhen we meet Parker, we don’t know much about him. He’s just a guy with shabby clothes and a bad attitude walking across the George Washington Bridge into New York without a dime to his name. Within hours of arriving in Manhattan, Parker has used an early ’60s form of identity theft to fill his wallet and set himself up quite nicely. Clearly, this is a resourceful guy. As we quickly learn in The Hunter, he’s also a guy that you do not want to double-cross.
A professional thief, Parker was betrayed, robbed and left for dead by one of his partners, Mal Resnick, who turned Parker’s wife against him. Mal used the money he took from Parker to pay off a debt he owed to the Outfit, and now he’s got good connections to the mob in New York. Parker doesn’t care who got the money or who Mal knows, he just wants to satisfy his grudges.
It’d been a while since I’d read any of the early Parker novels, and I was a little worried about how they’d hold up. Thankfully, they‘ve aged with style. With Parker, we’d get the prototype to the anti-hero professional thief, and there are countless fictional characters that owe a debt to him.
Since this initial book has Parker seeking revenge for a very personal double-cross, he’s more angry than he’d be for most of the series, but he’d always have that blunt and no-nonsense nature. On some levels, Parker seems completely amoral, but he’s a ruthless pragmatist, not a psychopath. He doesn't hurt anyone unless it's necessary, but if he needs to kill someone to get away with the loot, he doesn't hesitate for a second.
I read somewhere once that when asked why he used the Richard Stark pen name for these novels, that Westlake replied that he wrote his funny comic capers as himself on sunny days but that on rainy days he wrote as Stark. Fortunately for crime fans, Westlake must have had a lot of rainy days.
And a big Thank You to the University of Chicago press for reprinting the hard-to-find early Parker books in these gorgeous trade paperbacks. ...more
I'm assuming that this is the last new Dortmunder book since it was published after Westlake's death, and it's a very funny reminder of what's great aI'm assuming that this is the last new Dortmunder book since it was published after Westlake's death, and it's a very funny reminder of what's great about Westlake's comic writing. And it makes me more determined than ever to avoid reality television by any means necessary.
Professional thief Dortmunder and his crew get an unlikely offer to star in a reality series where the planning and execution of a robbery will be televised. Dortmunder and his friends aren't wild about filming their illegal activities, but since they don't have better options for any lucrative criminal activity, they decide to play along to see what they can steal along the way. As production starts, the gang quickly finds out that there's little reality in reality television, and they keep working their own angles to pull a very real heist while pretending to plan one.
This follows the standard Dortmunder formula. The regulars make their appearances, and as usual, gloomy Dortmunder has to deal with a bizarre situation when all he wants to do is make an honest living stealing. The behind-the-curtain look at reality television makes for some of the biggest laughs.
But the death of Westlake puts a layer of nostalgia and a feeling of farewell in this one that makes it pretty bittersweet. If this is the last we see of Dortmunder and his motley crew, then it's a fitting goodbye....more
People love to turn certain types of outlaws into folk heroes. Thieves and murderers are portrayed as varying versions of Robin Hood, and when they diPeople love to turn certain types of outlaws into folk heroes. Thieves and murderers are portrayed as varying versions of Robin Hood, and when they die, there are often stories about how they faked their deaths somehow. Billy the Kid and John Dillinger were both rumored to be alive long after they met their ends. Jesse James was dug up and DNA testing done a century after he was killed to prove it was really him in the grave. But what if there were famous outlaws who simply couldn’t die?
Jason and Whit Fireson are brothers who lead the so-called Firefly gang of bank robbers during the Great Depression. The death of Dillinger has made them the top priority for J. Edgar Hoover’s fledgling Bureau of Investigation. The book begins with their deaths. Sort of.
The Fireson brothers wake up in the morgue with fatal bullet wounds. Confused and scared, they quickly escape and try to figure out what happened to them during their last day and how they managed to come back from the dead.
The police think that their bodies were stolen and Jason sees this a great opportunity to vanish forever with no one looking for them. They need money to get away and they plan to pull a couple of bank jobs and then disappear with confusion about their reported deaths keeping a serious man-hunt from being done. But Jason’s girlfriend has been kidnapped, and their uncertainty about how they died and returned is haunting them. The title of the book should be a clue that the dying isn’t over for the Fireson’s yet.
This was a unique idea for a story with an interesting structure. It starts with their ‘deaths’ and then uses flashbacks to tell the story of the Fireson family along with how Jason and Whit turned to bank robbery.. I liked how the author didn’t play along with the usual ‘30s era bank robber Robin Hood myth. Whit has leftist radical tendencies and tries to think of the robberies as class warfare, but Jason doesn’t allow himself such delusions. He knows that they’re just criminals.
The book also does a nice job of showing the toll that this takes on the non-criminal members of their family like their brother Weston, who has to try and hold onto his job even as the Bureau of Investigation is putting pressure on his employer. There was also a lot of interesting detail about life during the Great Depression.
Good book that put an interesting twist on the legend of the Depression-era bank robbers....more
John Dortmunder gets out of prison and immediately begins planning his next heist. Unfortunately, the job turns out be a version of Groundhog Day andJohn Dortmunder gets out of prison and immediately begins planning his next heist. Unfortunately, the job turns out be a version of Groundhog Day and Dortmunder and his crew will have to keep stealing a priceless emerald over and over and over again.
This edition of The Hot Rock had an introduction from the late Donald Westlake where he explained that he originally thought of the basic plot for this as one of his Parker crime novels he wrote as Richard Stark. However, he realized that the ultra-serious Parker would never tolerate the repeated robberies so he invented John Dortmunder and changed it to a comedy. That’s a great little example of what continues to amaze me about the way Westlake was able to carve out various niches within the crime/mystery genre.
In this first book, Westlake establishes the Dortmunder universe where a variety of off-beat characters like his chatty friend Kelp and car-obsessed driver Stan Murch would become part of his regular robbery crew. It also gives us the formula that we’d get for the rest of the series. The guys want to pull a job, but there’s some kind of odd complication or problem that either makes the job or it’s aftermath one problem after another. Bad luck and trouble would follow gloomy Dortmunder throughout the series. Sometimes he’d get the loot and sometimes he wouldn’t, but he’d always be good for a lot of laughs along the way....more
It turns out that short stories about luckless professional thief John Dortmunder are just as enjoyable as his novel length adventures.
As the late DonIt turns out that short stories about luckless professional thief John Dortmunder are just as enjoyable as his novel length adventures.
As the late Donald Westlake explains in a brief introduction, he never planned for Dortmunder to be more than the main character in a single novel, but that turned into a very successful series. Over the years, he’d have the occasional odd idea that wasn’t enough for a novel, and somehow found that he’d written enough short stories for a collection.
Most of these are what you’d expect for stories about the gloomy thief who constantly finds himself pulled into elaborate and outlandish schemes. My favorite one in this collection is Too Many Crooks . Dortmunder and his buddy Andy Kelp tunnel into a bank vault after closing time only to find out that the bank was being robbed by somebody else and the vault is full of hostages. Hilarity ensues.
One of the more interesting things in the book isn’t a story. Westlake explains in the introduction that it once looked like he might lose the rights to the Dortmunder character due to the assholery of some Hollywood lawyers. (I assume that this is related to the movie version of The Hot Rock.) In case he lost the legal battle, Westlake had a plan to have the main characters operate under new names after being wanted by the police, but he had problems coming up with a suitable name for Dortmunder.
He finally decided on the name of John Rumsey, but Westlake was shocked to realize that when he tried to write a novel with the different names that Dortmunder became different despite the fact he was supposed to be the same exact guy. As Westlake comically explains it, Rumsey was shorter than Dortmunder.
The lawsuit was eventually dropped, but Westlake included a John Rumsey story. To Westlake, Rumsey and his cohorts are a version of Dortmunder and his gang from a parallel universe where everything is slightly different. It was a fun twist to add to he collection....more
Dortmunder has had a long dry spell as far as opportunities to steal valuables, and the gloomy thief has been reduced to running a scam pretending toDortmunder has had a long dry spell as far as opportunities to steal valuables, and the gloomy thief has been reduced to running a scam pretending to sell encyclopedias door-to-door. However, his friend Kelp has a nephew, Victor, who has an idea for a job. Victor has an obsession for old school pulp fiction and is a former FBI agent who had to leave the Bureau after trying to promote the idea that the feds needed a secret handshake.
Despite his over-excitement at working with an actual crew of professional criminals, Victor has come up with a potentially lucrative idea. A bank is being remodeled and they’ve put a specially designed trailer nearby to handle business while the construction is on-going. One night a week, a large amount of cash is in the safe of the trailer along with some armed guards.
And what’s the best way to steal a trailer? Why, you just hook up a truck and drive it off to work on cracking the safe at your leisure. At least, that was the plan. But when Dortmunder and his crew are involved, you know it can’t be that easy.
This is the second Dortmunder novel, but I think it may be one of the funniest of them I’ve read. There’s a lot of hilarious characters and dialogue. One bit of unintentional humor was that this was written in 1975, and there’s a long conversation where the thieves are complaining about how no one uses money anymore. It’s all checks and credit cards, and they moan that there won’t be any cash left to steal before too long, and this was long before debit cards or e-commerce. Fortunately, they managed to find enough to steal to keep us entertained for the rest of the series. ...more
If you’re looking for a single main character working his/her way through a straight line narrative, then just keep on walking. If you’re in the moodIf you’re looking for a single main character working his/her way through a straight line narrative, then just keep on walking. If you’re in the mood for a large cast of well-defined characters scheming their way through a web of theft, double-crosses, mistaken identity, misguided revenge attempts, bigamy, money laundering, strip clubs, night clubs, arson, murder and the destruction of a couple of Hummers, then this is definitely the book for you.
The book opens with Joe Carver on the run and sleeping in a construction site. Joe is new to L.A. and had been throwing money around as he sampled the night life in an attempt to impress women. Unfortunately for Joe, strip club owner and money launderer Manco Kapak was recently robbed while making his night deposit, and he’s had his thugs asking around about who has been flashing a lot of cash. Manco doesn’t really care if they’re blaming the right guy or not, he just has to punish somebody so as not to show weakness to his drug dealing partner.
Joe turns out to have his own checkered past and isn’t a pushover, but as he’s trying to convince Kapak that he didn’t rob him, the real thief, Jefferson Davis Falkins, and his new thrill seeking girlfriend, Carrie, decide that robbing Manco Kapak is both profitable and fun so they find new ways to get to his money. Kapak keeps blaming Joe for the new robberies. A police lieutenant with his own secret is getting very curious about all the activity around Kapak. Kapak’s enforcers are starting to think that their bosses luck has run out and start plotting against him. And Kapak’s insane drug dealing partner is getting impatient.
A summary of the plot makes it seem like a pure action story in which Kapak is the evil villain who picked the wrong guy to pin a crime on. That isn’t the case at all. All the characters are fully fleshed out with their own histories and motives. Even Kapak doesn’t come across as a villain, he’s more like a tired and aging man who actually cares about his employees and is just trying to hold on to what is his.
The story zigzags in unexpected directions, and has an ending I never saw coming. I really enjoyed this intelligent story about how one robbery can set off a chain of unexpected events that impacts many lives. I’ll be checking out more books by Thomas Perry....more
The Kansas City Massacre occurred over 75 years ago, but you can still go to the renovated Union Station and see chips in the front of the building thThe Kansas City Massacre occurred over 75 years ago, but you can still go to the renovated Union Station and see chips in the front of the building that were supposedly made by some of the bullets flying around that day. If you buy into the premise of Public Enemies, this is where the modern FBI was born. I like to imagine that years later, J. Edgar Hoover slipped into town late one night, put on one his best evening gowns and burnt some old illegal wire tap tapes on this spot as an offering to the fates that turned him from a fussy minor bureaucrat into one of the of the most powerful men in America.
In June of 1933, an escaped convict named Frank Nash had been captured in Hot Springs, Arkansas, by a couple of agents of the then mostly unknown Bureau of Investigation. They brought him by train to K.C.’s Union Station, where they met members of the local police who were going to help drive him back to Leavenworth. As they got into the cars, they were attacked by armed men trying to free Nash. After a brief but intense gunfight, two feds and two of the KCPD men were dead, several others were wounded, and Nash was also killed in the carnage. All of the attackers managed to escape.
The event occurred as a new wave of armed robbers had been rampaging across the Midwest. John Dillinger, Bonnie & Clyde, Babyface Nelson, Pretty Boy Floyd, Machine Gun Kelley and the Barker gang were making headlines with high profile kidnappings or by pulling a robbery in one area, then using fast cars and new automatic weapons to outrace and outgun the local law enforcement. Once in another county or state, they were very unlikely to ever be captured.
With Roosevelt’s administration rolling out his New Deal and looking for ways to boost federal power, Attorney General Homer Cummings declared a war on crime and pushed for a federal police force. (Ironically, it was a liberal public policy that gave power to Hoover, who would then spend most of his career investigating and persecuting harmless leftist groups while ignoring the growth of the Mafia.) The K.C. Massacre gave Hoover’s small Bureau of Investigation their chance to be that national police force when the KC cops, in an effort to pin all the blame for the massacre on the feds, gave them total responsibility for solving the case despite the fact that murdering a federal agent wasn’t even a federal crime then so they technically had no jurisdiction.
Hoover’s clean cut college boys were initially no match for the criminals. FBI agents weren’t officially allowed to carry weapons until after the massacre and most of its employees were college graduates looking for a job during the Great Depression and hadn’t signed up to be gun men. They made a lot of mistakes and missed a lot of arrest opportunities while a whole lotta money got stolen and many people were killed as the feds worked through their growing pains.
After all the prominent criminals had been captured or killed (many without Bureau involvement), it was the movie industry that embraced the ‘G-Men’ and turned them and Hoover into American heroes. Burroughs has obviously done a lot or research, and I think this book has to be one of the most accurate and thorough accounts of the Depression-era crime wave that swept the country. It’s filled with amazing stories and anecdotes and does a lot to try and break up the myths of the era. For example, Ma Barker was not the leader of the Barker gang. She was a cranky old lady who happened to get shot and killed while the FBI tried to bring in one of her boys. Hoover declared her the brains of the operation to deflect criticism about why an unarmed old woman got killed by his agents.
The only flaw in the book isn’t Burroughs’ fault. It’s just that history got repetitive. The criminals rob banks. The inept FBI can’t catch them. The criminals rob more banks. FBI still can’t catch them. Rinse and repeat. So while I got a little bored with some sections, it was only because Burroughs did such a great job of documenting all the history of it. This is a must-read for anyone interested in the true-crime of this era.
*I’m going to digress a moment about the movie version of this book. I enjoyed the movie and thought Johnny Depp did a great job as Dillinger. However, I find it kind of sad that a book that prides itself on historical accuracy and debunking many of the myths that the movies gave us about these people was itself turned into a movie that was wildly inaccurate and tries to create a whole new set of legends. It’s extra funny when you read about how incompetent Melvin Purvis actually was and how he was turned into a hero by the media after Dillinger and Pretty Boy Floyd were killed. This infuriated Hoover, and led him to trash Purvis’s career. In the film, Christian Bale plays Purvis as the straight arrow hero who personally kills Pretty Boy Floyd and Babyface Nelson. Hoover has to be spinning in his grave. ...more
When Parker gets plastic surgery from a crooked doctor to change his appearance, he hopes that it will help hide him from the Outfit since they‘re stiWhen Parker gets plastic surgery from a crooked doctor to change his appearance, he hopes that it will help hide him from the Outfit since they‘re still slightly peeved at him after the last book. With funds running low, Parker has to quickly sign on for a job robbing an armored car. However, the set-up involves a grouchy waitress named Alma, and she’s showing every sign of wanting to pull something cute and keep the money for herself. Plus, the doctor who did Parker’s surgery has been murdered and his people have sent a punch-drunk thug after him to see if Parker was the killer. There’s a lot of complications, and if there’s one thing that Parker can’t stand, it’s seeing a simple plan get complicated.
While a self-contained story, this picks up from The Hunter and leads well into the third book, essentially making the first three of the series a trilogy. One of the nice things about this series is that while there’s an overall arc to the stories that make them rewarding if you read them all, they can also be enjoyed just as individual stories.
This one also establishes the tone for the rest of the Parker series. There’s usually a job with someone who can’t be trusted along with some kind of outside circumstance screwing with Parker’s well laid plans. One of Parker’s partners sums it up nicely:
“It sounds like a good set-up. The way you talked about it, it sounds fine. But there’s this Alma. There’s always an Alma. Every damn time. Why can’t we put together a job without an Alma in it?
Unfortunately for Parker, there always will be an Alma around to muck up his schemes....more
When Parker and the Outfit had a dispute in the first book of the series, Parker warned them what he’d do if they didn’t leave him alone. But after suWhen Parker and the Outfit had a dispute in the first book of the series, Parker warned them what he’d do if they didn’t leave him alone. But after surviving an attempt on his life, it’s time for Parker to make good on his threat.
As Parker told the bosses of the Outfit, all the professional thieves know each other, and all of them have worked out some kind of scenario for robbing one of their operations because they’re cash-rich and won’t bring any legal attention. Potential revenge by the Outfit is the only thing stopping anyone from acting on their plans. But if someone fired a starting gun and they all hit at the roughly the same time, the confusion would greatly increase the chances that they’d be able to get away with no payback.
Parker writes a series of letters asking his fellow thieves to go ahead and hit any syndicate operation they’ve had their eye on. Many jump at the chance, not out of any friendship or loyalty to Parker (Parker doesn’t have friends.) but because someone gave them an excuse. As the Outfit reels from the shock of multiple robberies and the loss of a small fortune, Parker is going to find the head man and settle his problem once and for all.
This is one of the few Parker books that wouldn’t use the plot of him planning a job, carrying it out and dealing with complications, and it gives Stark (a/k/a Westlake) a chance to spin several mini-stories in the middle of the book as he deftly describes some of the different robberies that Parker’s fellow thieves carry out against the Outfit.
This one really solidifies Parker’s no-nonsense nature. With no patience for polite chit-chat or other social niceties, Parker’s encounters with other people can be hilarious. When he recruits Handy McKay to join him on his attempt to get to the top Outfit man, Parker offers money and a chance at picking up more along the way. When McKay indicates that he doesn’t really care about the money, that he’s going along because of their relationship, Parker is baffled and uncomfortable about it. He doesn’t understand sentimentality and doesn’t like that McKay is showing it about him.
Another solid Parker outing that wraps up a lot of the overall plot arcs from the first couple of books but leaves one nice dangling thread for Parker to pick up in the next one....more
When Parker was in the middle of a night of passion with Bett Harrow, he got attacked by a would-be assassin from the Outfit. Parker dealt with the guWhen Parker was in the middle of a night of passion with Bett Harrow, he got attacked by a would-be assassin from the Outfit. Parker dealt with the guy, but Bett ended up sneaking away with a gun that had Parker’s prints on it. Since his prints are on file from an old arrest and Bett knows his best assumed identity, this could lead to big problems.
Turns out that Bett, who has a thing for the bad boys, has a rich daddy who wants to have a small statue worth a fortune stolen from a diplomat who doesn’t realize what he has. For a hefty fee and the return of the gun with his prints, Parker agrees to the job. However, the diplomat’s communist government thinks he’s been embezzling and sends their most trusted spy to settle the matter just as Parker and his comrade Handy McKay are setting up their theft. Will Parker be able to do the job and recover the incriminating gun?
This is another stand-out Parker story with the usual complications and double-crosses screwing with what should be a simple job. Stark (a/k/a Westlake) uses this one to give us a better idea of Parker’s code of ethics, such as it is. While Parker is always a no-nonsense pragmatist who is willing to do things like torture people for needed info, he considers it a wasteful and unpleasant way to do things. He also shows that if he makes a deal, and if the other party holds up their end, that Parker will keep his word. (Usually.) But if anyone double-crosses him, then he’ll stop at nothing to get what he’s owed.
Another surprising thing in this one is the loyalty he shows to Handy McKay. When circumstances make it appear that ditching Handy would be a safer and more profitable option for several reasons, Parker still sticks with Handy and does quite a bit for him. Maybe it’s because he’s the closest thing to a friend that Parker has, but it was a little surprising seeing the unsentimental thief stick his neck out for somebody else....more
When Parker first hears about the plan to loot all of Copper Canyon, he thinks it’s insane. How can you rob an entire city? However, when he sees theWhen Parker first hears about the plan to loot all of Copper Canyon, he thinks it’s insane. How can you rob an entire city? However, when he sees the details and realizes that this is an isolated town that could be completely cut off and it’s police force neutralized, Parker starts thinking that it just might be possible, if he can find the right men for the job.
A solid crew is put together, a plan developed, and even the amateur who came up with the idea, Edgars, seems smart and willing to let Parker call the shots. Parker is about to pull off one of the boldest heists of his career. Of course, it’s never that easy.
Stark (a/k/a Westlake) makes what seems like an over-the-top plot of a gang of thieves taking over a town to crack multiple safes in one night seem feasible. I loved the plotting and preparations for this job, and the complications thrown at Parker in this one are surprising.
This book also introduced another thief, Grofield, who would star in several other Stark novels. Where Parker is the emotionless professional, Grofield is a chatty actor who funds his career with his robberies. An increasingly exasperated Parker is always telling Grofield to shut up, and his character adds a fresh and fun dynamic to the caper....more
When Parker gets a couple of letters from retired safe cracker Joe Sheer saying that he’s having problems, he’s worried that the old man is getting prWhen Parker gets a couple of letters from retired safe cracker Joe Sheer saying that he’s having problems, he’s worried that the old man is getting pressured into revealing secrets. Since some of those secrets would be about him, Parker packs a bag and is off to Nebraska thinking that he may have to permanently shut Joe up.
After he arrives in the small town that Joe had settled in, Parker learns that Joe is already dead, supposedly from a heart attack. But the police chief is instantly on Parker’s tail, and another thief is in town and won’t leave Parker alone. Everybody seems to be looking for something that Joe hid and assumes that Parker is there for the same thing.
This was a change-up from the pattern of the Parker stories to date since there was no robbery or real revenge motive going on. Parker just blundered into a situation, and is trying to get out without blowing his best fake identity. This isn’t about getting away with the loot, it’s about getting away without a warrant being issued against his phony name.
This also really took Parker’s ruthless nature up a notch. We know from the previous books that Joe Sheer was one of the few people that Parker would even remotely consider a friend, but he doesn’t have a moment’s regret about potentially having to kill him. Plus, Parker will stop at nothing to pin the crimes involved on other people to preserve his cover ID.
The ending also has the usual habit of having some element carry over from one Parker book to the next....more