Thursday, February 13, 2014

2. Slayground by Richard Stark

During this re-read of the Parker series, I have mentioned several times now in reviewing various titles that said title may be vying for the spot of best Parker book.  Well we can just put that to rest right now.    At this point, Slayground is the hands-down winner.  Now there is a tiny possibility that Butcher's Moon could knock if off at the last second, but it is very doubtful.  Slayground is not the first Parker book I ever read.  I'm pretty sure that was The Green Eagle Score, which was on the shelves of a book distribution company I worked at in the early 90's.  Later, though, when I had moved to New York, I found a hard copy of Slayground (the  book club edition of the 1971 Random House at the top of the page here), read it, loved it and passed it on to a friend which started us on a Parker-hunting craze.  So I credit it with turning me from an appreciator of Stark's work to the fanatic I am today.

[SPOILER ALERT!  YOU REALLY SHOULD JUST GET SLAYGROUND AND READ IT.  Why deny yourself pleasure?  If you haven't read it, reading my blathering below is like reading a restaurant review of a delicious meal that is right around the corner of your hosue and affordable.  Why not just get the real thing?]

Upon rereading it in 2014, the exquisite craft of Slayground has only been reinforced in my mind.  The opening chapter is a master class in in medias res (and let's not forget another genius Westlake metaphor, the armoured car wheels turning "like a dog chasing rabbits in its sleep") .  I had remembered that, but I had completely forgotten how brilliantly and efficiently the entire novel is set up in the final paragraph of that opening chapter.  Parker standing there in the cold, just about to run into a closed amusement park (his only choice with sirens coming, his escape car totalled) glimpses behind him to see in the parking lot across the way two crooked cops getting a payoff from two local outfit men (another genius metaphor, the black mafia Lincoln "as deeply polished and gleaming as a new shoe").  Right there, that is everything you need to know.  It's a brilliant premise and takes the book from escaped heister with cash avoiding cops to escaped heister with cash trapped in a closed amusement park in the dead of winter while the entire organized crime racket of the area comes in to hunt him down and get the money.  It's a quantum step up in coolness.

Now that would be enough right there.  But no!  Westlake develops that basic premise in a few more chapters of Parker ascertaining that he truly is trapped, that the legit cops were scent on a wild goose chase and he then begins to prepare for the eventual hunt.  This only takes up the first 40 pages of the book and then we are brought into part two, the viewpoint shift that is a hallmark of the Parker books.  This time, we get to meet the two crooked cops, one more experienced and corrupt and definitely wanting to get his hands on Parker's stolen cash, the other already nervous about being on the take and feeling like hunting a man down and killing him, criminal or not, may be crossing his moral line.  We also get to see the syndicate men, one a rising star in the local mob and the other his strong arm man.  When you read this section, you realize the depth that Westlake is going to bring to the book.  We could be satisfied with the game of cat and mouse with Parker the mouse, but we are going to also really learn about the characters who make up the cat, thus making Parker's kicking of their ass that much richer and complex.  Furthermore, we also get a glimpse into how the local outfit is structured and who are the people that make it up.

This is all 40 pages in and it got me so excited that my poor wife had to suffer my effusive exposition of the points made above while she was trying to get something done (I still haven't entirely lost the adolescent boy in me whose over-enthusiastic and point-by-point retelling of movies I had seen inspired a rule banning me from talking about movies with the rest of my family).  The rest of the book fully delivers on its promise.  It actually goes even farther, though I was ignorant of this at the time, in setting the stage for the orchestral climax of the Parker series, Butcher's Moon.  I wonder if Westlake knew he was setting it up at the time?

And how is this not a good movie already?  Oh yes, Hollywood is retarded.  Anyhow, if anybody has any brains and muscle out there, Slayground is basically already perfectly storyboarded.

So right now, the top three Parkers are: 1) Slayground, 2) The Jugger and 3) Deadly Edge.

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