There is another world, but it is in this one.

Paul Eluard. Œuvres complètes, vol. 1, Gallimard, 1968.

Thursday, April 12, 2018

The gang plays detective: The Seventh by Richard Stark (1966)

….Somebody had taken one of the crossed swords from the wall and jammed it through her chest and through the padded headboard of the bed and into the plasterboard of the wall. She was stuck there like a scarecrow put away for the winter.

The guy who did it had a hell of an arm. Either that, or he'd brought a sledge along to hammer it the rest of the way after the first thrust.






The Seventh by Richard Stark (1966)




I've read the first seven Parker heist thrillers by Westlake/Stark, and the final eight. The Seventh is my favorite, and I'm in awe of its energy and drive. In this novel the author has pulled himself out of a tight corner: one of the string of bad guys doing the robbery does not have to be Parker's main enemy. The potboiling arbitrariness of coincidence can be allowed to provide a worthy nemesis.

In The Seventh, Parker and six other guys are hiding-out various places in a largish (perhaps midwestern) town after robbing a local college stadium on the day of the big game. One night Parker steps out of his apartment for ten minutes to get beer and cigarettes, and finds when he returns that the woman he was shacking up with has been murdered with an ornamental rapier.

To add injury to insult, whoever done it took the boodle from the stadium job, which the gang entrusted to Parker until they had a chance to split it seven ways and leave town.

Parker brings the gang back together. He convinces them that working together they can get their money back.

....Negli was sitting in the room's one chair, a foam-rubber and wrought-iron affair. He was as dapper as ever, dressed to the nines, busy unwrapping one of his long cigars. He said, 'You know better than this, Parker. It isn't time for us to contact each other. What if you brought the law here?'

'I didn't bring the law.'

Negli shrugged. 'Still,' he said, 'this had better be worth it.'

Parker studied him sourly. Negli had the little man's courage, the knowledge he could get away with things a bigger man would be called on in a minute. It gave him a nasty disposition, and made Parker itch to tromp him.

Feccio was the other half of the team, the apologizer.

'Parker knows what he's doing,' he said. 'If he's here, he's got a good reason.'

'Good enough,' Parker said. 'I was hijacked. The money's gone.'

Feccio just stared. Negli looked up from his cigar, and paused, and said, 'Stole it from you, Parker?' He said it like he didn't believe it.

Parker went over and picked him up and threw him into the corner. When Negli rolled over with his hand going inside his coat, Parker put his right hand in his topcoat pocket.

Feccio said, 'Cut it! Bob, don't you move!'

Negli stayed where he was, half up from the floor, right hand still inside the coat.

Feccio said, 'Parker, you know Bob's way. He didn't mean it like it sounded.'

Parker said, 'Let Negli talk.'

Negli said, 'I believe you, Parker. You had the dough and you let somebody glom it from you. I believe it.'

Feccio walked over in front of Negli and said, 'Cut it out, Bob, or I'll take care of you myself.'

'The hell, Arnie. What does he want, a medal? We put a lot of work in and he comes around and says he lost the money, somebody took it from him.'

'Let's listen to him, what do you say?'

Negli got to his feet, and brushed himself off. 'I'll listen to anybody,' he said.

Feccio turned to Parker. 'We start all over,' he said. 'You just tell the story and we'll listen.'

Parker told them the story. Feccio listened and Negli stood around trying to look insulting. Parker had control of himself now, and he ignored Negli. The little bastard wasn't worth the sweat.

When he was done, Feccio said, 'I like the outsider. Somebody wanted your girl dead and he found the cash by accident.'

Negli said, 'I haven't said word one to anybody outside the group about what we were doing. Neither has Arnie. What about you, talking to the girl? Or Dan and his bimbo?'

Parker shook his head. 'Neither one of us told our women anything to worry about.'

'Yours knew you had all that cash, didn't she?'

'She never left the apartment from the time I brought the suitcases in. She wasn't out of my sight for three days, not until I went out last night.'

Feccio said, 'All right, never mind that now. What do you want from us, that's the question.'

'If we work together, we can get our cash back.'

Feccio nodded. 'If we work together,' he said, 'and if we're lucky. And if the law doesn't get him first.'

'They'll be looking for me,' Parker said. 'They won't think about anybody else when I'm so handy.'

Negli said, 'That makes you a liability, doesn't it, Parker?'

Before Parker could say anything, Feccio said, 'Bob, keep your mouth shut. We don't have time to put up with you now.'

Parker said, 'Do you know where any of the others are holed up?'

'I know where Shelly is,' Feccio said. 'I think he knows where to find Clinger and Rudd.'

Negli said, 'What we ought to do, Arnie, we ought to clear out of here. That dough's gone.'

Parker said, 'Maybe not.'

Negli shook his head. 'You're a dreamer. If I had that cash, I'd be a thousand miles from here by now.'

'You're a pro. You wouldn't have hung around last night to ambush me.'

Feccio said, 'This is wasting time. Bob and I'll go talk to Shelly. You want us all to meet someplace?'

'At Dan's. I'll get there as soon as I can.'

'Fine.'

Parker went to the door, then looked back at Negli. 'You don't have to waste time with the rest of us,' he said. 'You want to take off, go ahead. We'll find something to do with your cut.'

Negli made a crooked grin around his cigar. 'Forget it, Parker,' he said. 'I own a seventh of that pie. As long as there's one chance left at it, I'll stick around.'

Parker said, 'That's what I thought.'




What makes The Seventh so unusual is the seeming randomness of the mystery the gang has to solve. They dig in to the murdered woman's past male associates. Parker, in a tight little scene, gets the notes from the police detective on the case.

Part Three of the novel gives Westlake/Stark the chance to break out of of the professional heister milieu and go into the mind of a character we'd typically find in a Robert Bloch novel from the 1950s. He's a homicidal nut, though he'd be the last person to realize it.

His inadvertent actions and ego let him advance where professionals would never tread.  At one point, Westlake/Stark hauls back on his narrative to send us this sling-shot about the guy: "....having made the mistake that would kill him."

We have to keep going after a line like that.

The other members of Parker's crew are beautifully realized. Each is given their minute to shine. I came away particularly fond of Little Bob and Arnie Feccio, a double act, and poor Abe Clinger:

....Abe Clinger was a businessman, not a crook. It was his nature to be a businessman, and only the force of circumstances had him temporarily playing the part of a crook, a temporary condition that had lasted now about twelve years.

Television was to blame. Television was a blot and a rotten thing, ruining the eyes of young America, an insidious monster in living rooms all across the nation, showing sex and sadism, people smoking and holding glasses full of beer, destroying the livelihood of honest businessmen trying to make an honest dollar even with the minimum wage going all the time up up up and taxes getting worse every year. Even with government intervention and payments for workmen's compensation and social security and all the rest of it, it might have been barely possible to keep an honest man's head above water, except for the rotten box, television.

Abe Clinger had owned a movie theater. But a movie, theater, the real thing, with a kiddie matinee on Saturday with twelve cartoons and a Western and a chapter, and beautiful dinnerware given away to the ladies on Wednesday evening, and always a double feature plus cartoon plus newsreel plus coming attractions, changed twice a week on Wednesday and Sunday. A nice friendly neighborhood theater that was like an institution almost, like the branch of the public library or the post office substation, a part of the neighborhood.

Until television.

Then, to make matters worse, when he burned the theater down for the insurance he did several things wrong and he got caught. His wife of twenty-six years, when she learned he'd borrowed to the hilt on his life insurance and was also letting it lapse because he was going to jail, divorced him. His two sons looked at him with disgust and reproach, said, 'Pop', in long-suffering voices, and went away to change their names.

But in jail he met a couple of people who made a new life possible for him, and when he got out on parole after spending the minimum time behind bars he was pretty sure he would never be bankrupt again. There was always work in the armed robbery line for a man who looked like a businessman or a bookkeeper or a general manager or whatever in the office type the job might require. Carrying guns always made him nervous nevertheless, and he was yet to fire one of them, but he understood it was necessary in this trade, like being a Democrat in his previous occupation. Still, the new line of work had its advantages, like no employees and no overhead and no long hours, and his blonde was a hell of an improvement over the former Mrs Clinger, and generally speaking he had no complaints....




You can tell Westlake/Stark enjoys having a large cast to narrate. In part three of any Parker novel we nearly always break away from following Parker. In part three of The Seventh we follow the killer, but we also follow the other six heisters as they go about their detective work to find the guy who took their money.

Not all will make it to their seventh of the one hundred thirty-four thousand dollars.


As one detective on the robbery case exclaims to another: "This one's a lulu!"


Jay
12 April 2018





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