Tuesday, February 23, 2010

11. The Mourner by Richard Stark

The Mourner is the fourth in Richard Stark's Parker series and where the books really start to take their classical structure. There is one small link that connects The Mourner with previous books: a thrill-seeking woman that Parker bedded managed to steal a gun he used in a job and he needs to get it back. He becomes involved in a scheme to steal a rare statue ("the Mourner") from an eastern european diplomat but things get very complicated when it turns out that said diplomat has been double-dipping from his employers when making espionage payments. They've sent a spy out to punish him for this error of judgment (with the ultimate punishment) who has then naively engaged the mob to help him also recover the stolen money. So clearly, things are quite complicated and as usual Stark drops us right into the middle of this mess, with Parker waking up in his DC hotel room to two guys loudly climbing up the fire escape to his window.

First line of the book (from memory): "When the guy with asthma came in through the window, Parker rabbit-punched him and took his gun away."

So good. How can you not want to continue reading.

I remember The Mourner as being one of my favorites and it definitely lived up to my memory on this my third or fourth reading. However, I did go through an interesting development of my opinion as I was reading it. The Mourner is a slight departure from the books so far (and many of the other series), in that it features a non-American character. August Menlo is the fat and wily interior intelligence officer, who, due to his history of loyalty to the regime, is sent to America for the first time. He's a great character and his story arguably the central narrative to the book. His story is also the structural element that is an integral part of the Parker series. A side character makes an appearance in the first part, as the heist is being established, then when things go wrong in the second part, we stop and backtrack into the story of this secondary character. These stories are usually much more colourful than those of Parker and his crew and add significant depth to the book. The ending of their story often coincides with the resolution of the heist's disaster.

And here is where my slight dissatisfaction arose and then was dispelled. Every now and then in the series Richard Stark's firm grasp on the pen falter and Donald Westlake takes over. I am a huge Westlake fan as well (go check out his Dortmunder books for instance), but I do not welcome these brief intrusions. I call them "fruity" and they tend to be something slightly comic or goofy or just too colourful. The one that really stands out for me is the naive Africans in the Black Ice Score who are constantly grinning. They bring me out of the world of work and men and tools that is so integral to the series (and it strikes me, considering that they take place in the height of the '60s that the books are aesthetically quite conservative). The Menlo character at first just struck me as being just a bit too fruity. His character, combined with the rich history of the Mourner itself, set off some alarm bells and I was worried that The Mourner may lack the true heart of granite that is necessary for a good Parker novel.

Fortunately, once I delved deeper into Menlo's story and as it plays itself out, things get pretty rough pretty quickly and I realized that the fruitiness was just a small part of what is a really rich and layered narrative, with several great storylines going on (the heist, Menlo's plans and Parker trying to wrap up loose ends) and it all comes together in an extremely satsifying conclusion. Actually, this book is so good that I'd even recommend it for people who aren't necessarily interested in the genre.

Westlake is a master of metaphors and the Mourner contains two absolute gems that I feel I must share with you:

"and Handy, sprawled over there like a dummy dumped off a cliff, was an even worse mess."

Enough said. It works even better in the context of the paragraph, but it's too much of a spoiler to include it all.

"The somebody came up the fire escape about as quiet as the Second World War but trying to be quieter and stopped at Parker's floor."

I really wonder if Westlake just banged that sentence out, or spent time crafting it. The base metaphor is hilariously brilliant in its exaggeration and wry criticism. But the qualifying clause "but trying to be quieter" subtly encapsulates the utter incompetence of the act and the person doing it. You can just see Parker sitting up in his bed hearing this noisy amateur trying to sneak up on him. [Reading sentences like this turn me into a total gushing fan boy.] Fuck, you're a genius, Westlake! A master craftsman! Wherever you are in heaven, please take some small satisfaction with your life for that sentence alone. I thank you for bringing it into the world. [Okay, I'm closing the fanboy tap now. My apologies. I get excited at times.]

Finally, there is a paragraph that I believe really captures the overall theme of the Parker series. Menlo is following Parker and Handy while they prepare to steal the statue, trying to learn from them:

Menlo smiled with a touch of sadness. "I must say you remove the romance most utterly from all this. I had been seeing myself in quite dramatic terms. The defecting policeman, meting out poetic justice to the embezzler by depriving him of his ill-gotten gains, then disappearing again, quite forever, an enigma to all who seek him. But now I find I am merely a participant in a dreary and pedestrian series of quite normal activities--opening doors, driving automobiles, sitting in motel rooms." He shrugged and spread his hands.

He's exactly right and that's what make the Parker series so great. Go get this book and read it right now.


WeSailFurther said...

Another great review.

The writing seems so rich! I'd love to get some of this in my classroom. I think a more dramatic, adventurous, and faster-paced style might make reading a little more exciting for them. So much of modern English instruction is spent on trying to get the students to become better writers. And that is a noble goal, but without a lot of reading, and seeing models of good writing, trying to become a better writer is like starting from scratch.

Great quotes. I find that WW2 quote to be a little bit like Dickens. He lays the line down so neatly, without any kind of "did you see what I just did there" kind of self-congratulation. As if that was the only way the noise on the fire escape could have been expressed.

I bought a Stark book that I plan to get to soon.

Do you find yourself racing through these books, stuffing yourself with the action, or do you linger over it, trying to make it last?

WeSailFurther said...

Oh, and I meant to mention that I came to this post because I saw your twitter post about the review.

OlmanFeelyus said...

Hmm, good question (and great comments!). I think that now that I'm older I tend to race through books only if I'm not enjoying them, to get them over with. If I'm enjoying a book, I think I tend to read at a fairly steady pace. Though with Parker, I've read them all so many times that it's more about re-discovery and so I'll linger over certain favorite passages, or new ones that I had missed before.

It's hard with the high school classroom, as even if a book is good, most kids are pre-disposed to be against it, since they are forced to read it. Still, it would be nice to mix in some more easily enjoyable works that are still well-crafted. Maybe make a "teacher's choice" section in the curriculum where the teacher gets to pick one book a year (or has the option of letting the class vote on it). Even if it's crap like Twilight, it could be a good exercise in criticism for the students.