Donald Westlake (1933-2008) was an assiduous and creative author with about 100 crime fiction novels and dozens of short stories to his credit under various pen names. His fecund imagination earned him the Grand Master Award from the Mystery Writers of America in 1993 and the Eye Lifetime Achievement Award from the Private Eye Writers of America in 2004. Possibly his most enduring creation is Parker, a professional thief with ice water in his veins. Parker is preternaturally level-headed under pressure, managing inept colleagues and one impossible escape after another. Parker has been featured in graphic novels as well as movies.
My favorite of the 24-book series is Slayground (Random House, 1971), which takes place during the winter at an amusement park shut down for the season. As is often the case, a robbery getaway doesn’t go quite as planned. Parker takes the loot and dives into the park, thinking to lay low for awhile and then quietly escape. A group of crime gang members are in the vicinity for their own reasons and decide to relieve Parker of his cash. Parker is frustrated to learn there is no back exit to the amusement park. With the gang protecting the only way out, he proceeds to protect himself and his hard-earned money.
The suspense rolls off the page in this short book. Under normal circumstances, the thugs should have had no trouble in dealing with one lone gunman. But this gunman was Parker, who has the ingenuity of MacGyver in turning whatever equipment or tools are at hand into effective weapons. The casualty rate was much higher than they expected. Part of the tension comes from the jarring juxtaposition of an amusement park, the site of light-hearted entertainment, turned into a war zone. Rapid pacing, terse prose, eminently readable.
The Fugitive Pigeon
by Donald Westlake (Random House, 1965) is one of the MWA Grand Master’s comic
mysteries. I’ve read Westlake’s Parker books, written under the name Richard
Stark, and loved them, but never got around to his capers, of which there are
many. This story is one of the early ones.
Charlie Poole is a bum and knows it. His father
vanished early in his life and his mother worked hard to raise Charlie, but
Charlie has not shown the slightest interest in accepting adult
responsibilities at age 24. After not being able to hold a job for more than
two or three months, his uncle by marriage gives him a job running a bar in Canarsie
in remote Brooklyn. The bar steadily loses money and Charlie worries about it
but his Mob-connected uncle explains that it is supposed to lose money, only
Charlie never quite understands the logic behind it all. Once in awhile Charlie
accepts a package from a courier and then turns it over to someone with the
proper code words but other than that Charlie leads a quiet life, providing
drinks as requested and watching television, then going upstairs to the nice
small apartment that is provided as part of the job.
Until one night when a couple of serious-looking
men enter the bar at closing time and attempt to kill Charlie. Charlie escapes
and runs to his uncle, who refuses to talk to him, telling him the uncle
doesn’t know what Charlie has done to antagonize the Mob but the uncle can’t
afford to get involved. Charlie is convinced that if he can get to the man who
ordered his demise that he can explain that he hasn’t done whatever it is they
think he’s done.
Charlie evades the goons again by the thinnest of
hairs to find Artie Dexter, the only friend he can think of who might be awake
at 4:00 in the morning; fortunately Artie is holding an all-night party. Once
everyone gets some sleep, Artie is prepared to drive Charlie to visit Mr. Big
on Long Island to explain his innocence. Charlie and Artie arrive at the
palatial estate to find Mr. Big recently murdered and everyone believing Charlie
is the culprit. Artie and Charlie once again bolt by a miracle, this time
taking Mr. Big’s daughter as hostage.
The ensuing car chases all over New York are fun, and his meeting with Mr. Big’s boss, an avid bridge player who resents the interruption of his weekly card game, is a hoot. As usual, Westlake can’t put a foot wrong. A great quick read.