Parker Progress Report: Butcher’s Moon (Parker #16, 1974) by Richard Stark; a review

And so we reach the final novel in the first phase of Donald “Richard Stark” Westlake’s Parker crime series, and indeed in the first phase of my reviewing trawl through the Parkers: Butcher’s Moon. I’ve actually got three posts planned on Butcher’s Moon: this first one, which is, obviously, a review; a look at the Random House first edition of the novel, in particular an ex-library copy I found fairly recently, but also the book’s design and collectibility; and a look at the first British edition of the book as well.

But let’s begin with the substantive issue, namely the novel itself. First published in 1974, Butcher’s Moon is not only the capstone on Parker phase one—i.e. 1962–1974—but also the culmination of everything Westlake had been doing in the series to this point. Westlake’s been quoted as saying that he stopped writing Parker stories (for twenty-three years, that is, until he started again with Comeback in 1997) because those stories just stopped coming to him. On the evidence of Butcher’s Moon, it’s easy to see why. The novel reintroduces characters from almost all fifteen of its predecessors in a tale that is, in the first instance, a direct sequel to the previous Parker-but-one, Slayground (Parker #14, 1971), but also, and perhaps more audaciously, a continuation of, and completing of, a subplot introduced in the very first book in the series, The Hunter (1962).

Parker’s run of bad luck—see the four novels from The Sour Lemon Score (Parker #12, 1969) to Plunder Squad (Parker #15, 1972)—persists as the story opens. A botched jewelry store job leaves him out of pocket and in dire need of cash, so he calls up Alan Grofield, the actor-turned-thief with whom he worked on the heist at the start of Slayground/The Blackbird (Grofield #3, 1969—the two novels sharing an opening chapter, remember)—a heist that resulted in Grofield being hospitalized and Parker abandoning a stashed bag of dough in an amusement park in the Midwest city of Tyler. Grofield is similarly on his uppers, his summer stock theater in Mead Grove, Indiana continuing to drain his resources and the events of his last solo outing, Lemons Never Lie (Grofield #4, 1971), leaving him without a pot to piss in. So when Parker suggests they head to Tyler to retrieve their loot, Grofield readily accepts.

Predictably, once they arrive in Tyler and search Fun Island, there’s no trace of the money, so—much as Parker did in The Hunter—he and Grofield make a nuisance of themselves with the local Outfit (i.e. Mob) operation in an effort to track down the boodle. Adolf Lozini, the Mafia boss who led the hunt for Parker through Fun Island in Slayground, is still in charge—but only just. There’s a coup d’état brewing, and the last thing the usurpers need is Parker and Grofield making things more difficult. But successfully and violently muddy the waters they do, until Grofield is shot (again; see also Parker #8, The Handle, 1966/Grofield #1, The Damsel, 1967) and then held hostage and Parker has to resort to calling in help from a Dirty Dozen (including himself) of former associates from previous books—among them Handy McKay from The Man with the Getaway Face (Parker #2, 1963), Stan Devers from The Green Eagle Score (Parker #10, 1967), and Ed Mackey from Plunder Squad—to carry out a series of jobs on Outfit enterprises in and around Tyler before hitting the Outfit men themselves.

There’s a school of thought which reasons that Butcher’s Moon represents the strongest evidence yet of a softening, a humanizing of the initially emotionless, machine-like Parker, a development that can be traced back to his hooking up with Claire in The Rare Coin Score (Parker #9, 1967). Frankly, I don’t buy it. Parker cheerfully—or, more accurately, dourly—murders his way through Butcher’s Moon, gunning down one man on a sidewalk just to send a message and visiting an apocalyptic vengeance on the hapless mobsters at the close of the book. If that’s a “softer” Parker, my name’s Alan Marshall.

Those who present the case for Parker becoming more human—the estimable Max Allan Collins in this Mystery*File review, say, or more recently, by inference, the effervescent Tucker Stone in this Factual Opinion review—point to Parker gathering together his “friends” to take on the Outfit, and more specifically to a scene two-thirds into the novel once he’s done so. Taking the question of the relationship between Parker and his associates first, I think it’s a mistake to view the heisters Parker brings to Tyler as his pals. Sure, they’re men he can trust—to an extent—but they’re hardly friends; it’s not as if Parker hangs out with any of them when he’s not working (inviting the guys upstate, Parker in Bermuda shorts, the convivial host, slapping some steaks on the grill, passing round a six-pack… nah, can’t see it), and for their part, they’re essentially in Tyler to make some money. Parker is basically assembling a hit squad of co-workers, much as he did in The Outfit (Parker #3, 1963), with a definite aim in mind.

As to the specific scene, that hinges on why Parker is even bothering to get Grofield back—the argument being that, hitherto, Parker would have done the practical thing and left him behind. I suspect, however, that there’s something more meta going on here. It’s a question that Westlake himself addresses after Parker explains that the twelve of them will launch an assault on the Outfit to retrieve Grofield, after which we get this passage:

His intensity had startled them a little. Nobody said anything until Handy McKay, speaking very quietly, said, “That’s not like you.”

What kind of shit was this? Parker had expected a back-up from Handy, not questions. He said, “What’s not like me?”

“A couple things,” Handy said. “For one, to go to all this trouble for somebody else. Grofield, me, anybody. We all of us here know we got to take care of ourselves, we’re not the Travelers Aid Society. You, too. And the same with Grofield. What happens to him is up to him.”

“Not when they send him to me piece by piece,” Parker said. “If they kill him, that’s one thing. If they turn him over to the law, get him sent up, that’s his lookout. But these bastards rang me in on it.”

Handy spread his hands, letting that point go. “The other thing,” he said, “is revenge. I’ve never seen you do anything but play the hand you were dealt. Now all of a sudden you want a bunch of people dead.”

Parker got to his feet. He’d been patient a long time, he’d explained things over and over, and now he was getting itchy. Enough was enough. “I don’t care,” he said. “I don’t care if it’s like me or not. These people nailed my foot to the floor, I’m going round in circles, I’m not getting anywhere. When was it like me to take lumps and just walk away? I’d like to burn this city to the ground, I’d like to empty it right down to the basements. And I don’t want to talk about it anymore, I want to do it. You’re in, Handy, or you’re out. I told you the setup, I told you what I want, I told you what you’ll get for it. Give me a yes or a no.”

What Westlake is doing here is directly addressing us, the readers. Westlake doesn’t care that it’s slightly out of character for Parker to want to rescue Grofield: the author simply wishes to write a climactic assault on the Outfit compound, which he subsequently does, with nerve-jangling bravado. It could be argued that the transition is clumsily handled, that for a brief moment the gears and levers of the plot become visible; but Westlake understands this, admits that’s the case, and dares us to either go along with him or give up on the story. Get on board, he’s saying, or get gone.

Structurally, Butcher’s Moon marks something of a departure from previous books in the series. Westlake dispenses with the traditional four parts in favor of a continuous, largely linear narrative. Again, that’s in keeping with both the apogeic nature of the enterprise—there’s little time for Stark Cutaways as we barrel towards the finish line—and the more experimental aspects of the late-1960s/early-1970s Parker novels. That Westlake arrived at what is in essence a standard novel approach having spent the previous four Parkers tinkering with structure is perhaps surprising, but by dint of its formal ordinariness and additional—but again more familiar in comparison to other, non-Stark novels—length (it’s a lot longer than the Parkers’ typical 160 pages), perversely, Butcher’s Moon actually stands out from the crowd.

Butcher’s Moon isn’t, I don’t think, the best book in the initial run of the series; for my money that’s still The Seventh/The Split (Parker #7, 1966), which has a terrific Parker-perplexing set-up, a blistering blood-soaked finale and a killer last line. But it’s one of the best, certainly in the top five, and a fitting finale for the first phase of this brilliant, unique crime series.

As ever, you can read Violent World of Parker proprietor Trent’s thoughts on Butcher’s Moon on the book’s dedicated page, but next up from me: the 1974 Random House first edition of the novel…