Guest slot: The Wolf Man, by Christopher Lyons

Let’s keep the introductions to a minimum this time: the first part of Chris’s two-part guest essay, “The Man Who Doesn’t Wink,” can be found here, so go read that (if you haven’t already) to get yourself up to speed. As before, we welcome your comments, even more so now that both parts of the piece are up. And with that, I’ll get out the way: over to Chris.

The Wolf Man

by Christopher Lyons

“He’s a cold guy. With me, when I stopped him, he wore this affability like a coat, it wasn’t him.”

“The cloak of invisibility,” Barry suggested.

“Exactly. Who knows who he is, down in there?”

From Nobody Runs Forever.

“All right. I know who you are. I already knew who you were. I shouldn’t act as though it’s any of my business.”

“That’s right.”

“It’s hard,” Lindahl said. “It’s hard to be around…”’

The sentence trailed off, but Parker understood. It’s hard to be around a carnivore.  

From Ask the Parrot.

Ask the Parrot, the penultimate Parker novel, is to the best of my recollection, the only one that explicitly refers to wolves; only twice, and both times indirectly. Parker accompanies would-be accomplice Tom Lindahl on a manhunt (that is trying to net Parker himself), and they end up at an abandoned upstate New York mining town called Wolf Peak. After an overzealous friend of Lindahl’s has not-quite-accidentally shot and killed an old hobo in the course of this hunt, Parker asks what predatory animals are in the region, who might be counted on to clean up the remains. Lindahl says there are coyotes around, though not many. This would count as an indirect reference, since the eastern coyote is now known to have hybridized with the last few surviving eastern wolves, as well as dogs, the end result being a larger, more robust, highly adaptable animal, that is rapidly expanding its range–they’d reached The Bronx by the early 90s (I’ve seen them there), and there are several pairs now known to be frequenting wooded areas along the west side of Manhattan. For all we know, some of these Gotham coyotes may have crossed over from the New Jersey Palisades on the George Washington Bridge. Probably didn’t shout obscenities at passing motorists along the way, though they might have been tempted.  

It’s in the above quote from Ask the Parrot that I believe Westlake finally showed his hand with regards to Parker’s true nature. But in saying this, I’m not saying I believe he always thought of Parker as a wolf. It’s possible, but I have my doubts. In Dirty Money, Detective Gwen Reversa (who is also quoted above, from Nobody Runs Forever) compares Parker to a cat. When telling Parker there are coyotes around, Lindahl also mentions Bobcats. Westlake is known to have kept cats, and Parker has his feline qualities (and a lot more than just nine lives), but I can’t help but note that Reversa only half-understands her quarry, which is one reason why she never catches him. For all that, I don’t believe Westlake sat down to write each new Parker novel thinking “How can I make him a wolf this time?”  

The truth is, comparisons of certain lawless ungovernable types with wolves (armed robbers most notably) go back for centuries, and are a longstanding hoary cliche in the crime genre–there’s Louis Joseph Vance’s once-popular series of books (and later movies) about jewel thief turned detective Michael Lanyard, aka The Lone Wolf; and just a year or so before The Hunter came out, Richard Jessup’s Wolf Cop was published by Gold Medal. Newspapers had been referring to this or that notorious hold-up man as a lone wolf (Dillinger included) since before Westlake was born, and he would have wanted to avoid such an obvious worn-out sales gimmick–he might also have seen a lot of unrealized potential in the concept of a man who really does operate like a wild animal prowling the mean streets of hardboiled crime fiction. Making use of old ideas in a new way was, after all, Westlake’s stock in trade.  

Still, as carefully as he researched the more technical aspects of his stories, I see no reason to assume he was spending much time researching animal behavior–in Ask the Parrot, there’s a remarkable passage where with almost Tolstoyan empathy, Westlake tries to get into the head of the title character, an actual parrot–and he says it sees in black and white. It’s a lovely bit of writing, but the fact remains that parrots, like nearly all birds, see color much better than we do. David Attenborough he was not, and that might be just as well. If he had done research into wolf behavior back in the early 1960s, it might not have done him much good, since much of what we thought we knew about them back then has since proven to be overly simplistic, or just plain wrong. No, I think he was feeling his way into the character intuitively, not scientifically. Nonetheless, the resemblance between Westlake’s first great literary creation and Canis Lupus is nothing less than striking, even if not originally intended. If Westlake wasn’t researching wolf biology while writing Parker, the similarities are even more astounding.

As I’ve already detailed, the most striking oddity about Parker, as we learn in his very first appearance, is that his sex life is cyclical–he’s randy as all hell after pulling a job, then the urge gradually subsides, to the point where he loses all interest until the next job is completed. This anomalous behavioral quirk has no real bearing on the plot of The Hunter (one of the few novels where Parker doesn’t get any, though opportunities abound), but Westlake still goes to some pains to describe it, telling us that Parker’s wife Lynn had a hard time adjusting to this pattern. It really does stick out from any comparable character in crime fiction–it’s one thing for a fictional tough guy to feign lack of interest, or to be able to control his impulses, the way The Continental Op stalwartly resists a deadly seductress in The Girl With Silver Eyes–or you could refer to the sexual problems of the protagonist in The Name of the Game is Death, in that he has to engage in some kind of violence in order to get it up. But see, he actually perceives impotence as a problem to be solved, as all men do, which is why Viagra makes Pfizer a billion dollars a year. When Parker isn’t capable of having sex, he isn’t interested in having sex–he doesn’t see any problem with that–it’s the women in his life who have a problem with it, though Westlake doesn’t dwell on that much. One could certainly point to many characters who are seemingly indifferent to women most of the time (Sherlock Holmes comes to mind), but for the impulse to just periodically disappear from a guy who likes women a lot and is overpoweringly attractive to them–then reappear with a vengeance once the work is done? And he seems to think this is perfectly normal, and never worries about his performance at all? Far as I know, unprecedented, in human life or literature.

Not, however, in nature. While many people know that female wolves become sexually receptive only once a year, in the winter, it’s less well known that the males likewise have no interest in copulation most of the time. Their testicles actually shrink in the summer (please, no Seinfeld refs), presumably as a means of ensuring they are not distracted by unneeded urges when there are young to be reared and fed. In captivity, these cycles can be altered somewhat, but something has to get those hormones flowing. In a different environment, the stimulation of a successful hunt might well turn the trick.

When we say “Men are dogs”, we’re referring to the fact that male dogs, like male primates, are always ready for action–in their case, even castration won’t tame the urge entirely if there’s a female in heat around (I have a ‘neutered’ Shepherd Mix, and you can take my word for that). There’s no set seasonal schedule for when female dogs go into heat (twice a year, instead of once), and stable pair bonds are rare, so the males have to be ready at all times. Domestication changed their pattern. So maybe that’s why Parker’s pattern changes once he’s settled down with Claire–she doesn’t have to endure long periods of privation like Lynn, though Parker continues to be at his most vigorous right after a heist. Still begging the question, though–how was it that this particular beauty managed to ensnare the beast, where so many others failed?  

Wild wolves essentially fall in love with their mates, want to be with them as much as possible, forming a bond of genuine affection that lasts a lifetime (and it’s hard to overstate how unusual a pattern this is in nature). Before that happy union is joined, they may leave their natal packs and spend some time wandering the wilderness by themselves, seeking amorous opportunities where they may, until they meet up with ‘The One’, at which point they pair up and form the nucleus of a new pack. Those hybridized eastern coyotes I mentioned earlier may have been the result of lone male wolves, unable to find any of their own kind in the wake of mass extermination by man, coming across female coyotes in estrus, and instead of killing them (as would have been the normal tendency), taking them as mates. The same happens with wolves and dogs, dogs and coyotes, etc–basically three very different animals with highly compatible DNA, who may be trying to murder each other one minute and the next–well when you can’t find a nice girl of your own sort, you take what you can get. Nature will be obeyed, one way or the other.

I need hardly point out that Parker never meets a girl of his own sort (with one possible exception, which I’ll get to in a bit). A wolf in the body of a man is going to have problems adjusting to primate sexuality, assuming he even wants to try. Physically, the women he encounters are quite compatible–psychologically, not so much. It’s hard to say what it was about Lynn other than her looks that got him interested, since she’s far from her best when we meet her. They seem to have actually gotten married (a safe bet that was her idea–nothing unusual there), but Parker’s cyclical sex drive remained unaffected by this new level of intimacy, and Lynn had to live with it. She was involved in some way with the criminal world beforehand, and that had hardened her–but there was underlying weakness in her character, and their bond was not as strong as Parker thought. Faced with a threat to her life, she breaks, and turns on him, bitterly regretting it afterwards, but the damage is done. And this is far and away the most traumatic thing that ever happens to Parker–not because he got shot–not because he got arrested and fingerprinted, which had implications stretching across the entire series. Because he’d let her in–he’d trusted her, as he had never trusted anyone else. She was his mate, and she betrayed him. And in the wolf world, this simply does not happen.  

So this is the Parker we see striding across the George Washington Bridge, his worldview shaken to the core by something he didn’t believe was possible–not for him. His pattern of take the money, go back to Lynn, live the high life together, find a new score–disrupted. It was hardly a natural pattern–Parker never shows any interest at all in starting a family, which might not even be possible for him, since his children would probably be–well–human. Still, it was a pattern that felt approximately right to him, and now he has to start over from scratch.  

Once he’s settled with Mal and The Outfit, he thinks he can go back to what he had before Lynn, finding short-term hook-ups after a job, but it’s too complicated. Women are too complicated. Humans are too complicated. He tries prostitutes he has to slap around just to get their interest–a jaded heiress with a yen for alpha males who tries to use him–the world-weary girlfriend of a dead accomplice who manages to leave him just before he dumps her (one guesses the no-sex-most-of-the-year thing came as a shock)–a laconic bohemian fashion model another string member sets him up with who he really seems to be digging (she’s the closest thing he’s found to a female version of himself) until her humiliated ex shows up and skewers her with a sword–and a charming high-end call girl working for the syndicate, who actually manages to modify his work-sex cycle a bit, but she’s not to be trusted, and isn’t looking for anything serious. And there’s the woman from The Jugger, but I’d just as soon forget about her, as I’m sure Parker did immediately–in a pinch, he’s not picky.  

By the time we reach The Rare Coin Score, he’s hooking up randomly with anybody he can find, and getting no real satisfaction out of it–he’s lost any sense of stability in his post-heist existence. It’s making him irritable, erratic, uneasy. A while before that, there’s a moment in The Score where he looks at Mary Deegan, Grofield’s newly-acquired girlfriend (and later wife), who has impressed him with her calm self-assurance–and he momentarily wonders where you find something like that–a woman with real class, who’s worth going to some extra trouble for, who has understandable agendas of her own, and will be there for him when needed–a partnership. The swinging bachelor lifestyle just doesn’t work for Parker. It’s not him. Not anymore. He’s past that stage. He needs a mate. He doesn’t think this. He feels it. It’s eating at him. He opens a hotel room door, and there she is.

Many novels later, Parker realizes belatedly that Claire had him at hello, with that little crack about how “It doesn’t sound like a very rewarding profession.” Without anyone to come home to, no it’s not. The wolf was looking for someone to tame him–resilient but not hard, interesting but not overly complex, looking for a longterm thing but not needy–and able to accept that he won’t be tame all the time. Able to let him go off and be a wolf when he needs to–probably the hardest adjustment Claire has to make, given her past history with men who lead dangerous lives, but he persuades her he’s not some reckless adrenaline junkie, while she persuades him she’s able to live in his world, without really being a part of it. She basically proposes to him, but it takes her longer to adapt to their arrangement. He realizes almost immediately that this works–much better than what he had with Lynn.  

Their courtship is anything but conventional, but that tracks. Claire has to persuade Parker there’s no need to kill her, for one thing. He has to be sure she won’t turn him in. Then again, in a typical noir fiction romantic coupling, there’s always the chance of one partner betraying and/or murdering the other–it’s almost the expected thing. Whereas with Parker and Claire, once they’ve formed their bond, it becomes unshakeable–neither seems to question it much. She’s not like him, but she understands him. They figure out each others’ rhythms, and how to accommodate each other. She makes a home for them–a place where he can relax, just a bit (he can never entirely let his guard down)–not burn himself out running around between jobs. He gives her the opportunity to travel, and just enough of a sense of danger in her life–and occasionally much more than enough. But she knows Parker will do whatever is necessary to protect her. Once they’ve bonded, he never stops and calculates the odds when it comes to Claire being in trouble, as he would with a fellow heister (even Grofield). As he tells Leslie in Flashfire, all his doors and windows are open–but only for her. She is necessary to him. He doesn’t worry about it, doesn’t wonder about it. It’s how things are. If he had to walk through fire to get to her, he’d put on asbestos boots. The wolf does not abandon his mate. That’s a human thing.  

It’s a good match. Not perfect. Good enough. Parker never has a problem with good enough. And strangely, his pattern alters again–he’s no longer cyclical in his sex life. Out in the heisting world, he’s still a wolf. With Claire, at their little redoubt in Northwestern New Jersey, or at some posh luxury resort in the warm months, he’s a dog. Her dog. Not a lap dog, by any means. Not all women go in for Shih Tzu’s and Yorkies, you know. I see some very nice women, some of them remarkably beautiful, with big powerful strong-willed (and frequently unneutered) male dogs, here in New York. They seem very happy together, very self-contained, and the relationship has the advantage of stability–men may leave you, but a well-treated dog stays true unto death. If they had the option of the same relationship, only the dog would have a man’s body, some small capacity for conversation, a longer lifespan, and could go out and make a living, I think those women would go off the dating market pretty quick. Not kidding. Us guys better hope science never gets around to that little project. Then again, I’ve met some really lovely bit–well, enough of that.

So anyway, his sexual proclivities are perhaps the most striking point of comparison between Parker and a wolf, but hardly the only one, and perhaps not the most important. Though we find out early on that women are drawn to him (which he finds to be a nuisance much of the time), sex takes a backseat to violence and larceny in the novels, which are about his working life. He doesn’t even find a new relationship (if you want to call it that) until the third one. We call men who are always on the make ‘wolves’, but that’s a very misleading bit of slang. Wolves are intensely interested in sex for a few weeks out of a year. They are interested in hunting for their food 365 days a year. And what was the title of that very first Stark novel? Oh right–The Hunter. Fancy that.

Yes, Parker is hunting Mal Resnick in that book, but he’s also hunting for money, which he recognizes as the true source of sustenance in this upside-down world men have created for themselves. Once he’s killed Mal, his one-track mind switches over immediately to the matter of the cash he’s owed from the job he pulled with Mal. We don’t see him form a string until the next book, by which point he has a new face (it’s noteworthy how little time he spends getting used to his altered appearance). At which point we meet the redoubtable Handy McKay, and begin the long process of getting to know Parker’s many partners in crime.  

Under any name he chose to write under, Donald Westlake had a rare gift for thumbnail character sketches, and it’s in his descriptions of Parker’s fellow heisters that it often blooms most fully. Many of these characters could serve as protagonists in their own right (and one of them did, of course), but as supporting characters they keep the series fresh and engaging. Parker himself is too uncommunicative, too uncomplicated, to hold the spotlight all the time. The interplay between him and the other thieves–how they understand each other, and how they don’t–creates a fascinating tension that enlivens book after book. If he’s the sun, they’re the planets–each different from the next, full of odd contradictions and surprising interests, moments of great poignancy, humor, and of course, murder. Westlake can only tell us so much about Parker, because Parker will only tell Westlake so much about himself–he can dig deeper into the motivations of these other heist men–and of course he can kill them off, confident in his ability to create more (or in the case of Dan Wycza and Ed Mackey, bring them back from the dead, because they had some mileage left in them).  

Necessary as they are to the story, how are they necessary to Parker? The question must be asked, because in Flashfire, pissed off at having been cut out of his rightful share of a not very profitable bank job, we see him bankroll his revenge with a string of small robberies that quickly net him far more than his share of the original score, and it never occurs to him to just let well enough alone. This, I must confess, is not wolf-like. Parker’s obsession with not being cheated seems very human. But I think it’s motivated by something we see throughout the series–his confusion over the vagaries of human behavior–Lynn’s betrayal drove him nearly mad for a while, because his instincts kept telling him it was impossible. A confused Parker is an angry Parker. And we humans are nothing if not confusing.

So faced with something that would never happen if he was a real wolf living among wolves–since pack members always share a kill they made together–he tends to react badly. The contradiction must be erased, destroyed, for his mind to feel in balance once more. It’s very human of him to brood over something that’s already in the past, but his reasons for doing so are strictly lupine. That being said, what lupine reasons does he have to keep putting together new strings, when he knows there’s always the potential of somebody screwing up, or turning on him? What does he need all these people for, if he can steal all the money he needs himself?

In the wild, solitary wolves are, contrary to popular opinion, quite capable of fending for themselves–some recent studies seem to indicate that they may have more success hunting alone, or in pairs, than in large packs. Packs are basically family units, with a few experienced adults teaching the youngsters how to hunt so they can go off and form their own packs, and this is a long error-filled process. A pride of lions actually has better teamwork, because it’s really a band of sisters, who spend their entire lives learning to hunt together, while the big males keep them safe. A wolf pack can take down larger prey than a lone wolf. That’s a plus. A lot more mouths to feed is not. So why form packs at all?

Protection. If a wolf manages to kill something he can’t finish eating immediately, he’s got to worry about bears, mountain lions, or other wolves muscling in on his score. A strong pack can face off almost any potential threat. It also serves as a way of protecting vulnerable pups, and then educating them, as I’ve already mentioned. It also makes them happy, as these deeply social animals only ever can be in the company of their own kind. But fundamentally, a wolf needs a pack to hang onto the fruits of his labors, and fend off rival carnivores. That’s how it started.

Parker works very well as a solo act, and even better teamed up with one of his more capable and trusted sidemen, like Handy or Grofield. He likes to keep his strings as small as possible–fewer possibilities for a weak link, fewer slices in the pie. He could, if he wished, just keep doing what he does in Flashfire, but he’d have to keep working all the time, which would greatly increase the odds of him being killed, or caught by the law. And if he made a big enough score by himself to stop working for a while, he’d have to defend it all by himself. And sure, there are specialized skills in his profession, that he can’t all master himself. But it really does come down to strength in numbers. Since men are a lot less reliable than wolves, it’s a necessary evil, but a necessary evil is necessary nonetheless. Larger scores require larger strings–and vice versa. This complicates Parker’s life immensely, but it sure makes for some good stories. And now and again, as in Butcher’s Moon, we learn that rightly as he may distrust these men he associates with professionally, he takes real pleasure in their company–and in leading them to a good score. When he needs somebody to have his back, he knows who to call. And when they hear him howl, they come running, tongues hanging out expectantly–you can almost see them drool in anticipation.

And now we come to the heart of the matter–why heisting? We meet Parker for the first time long after his primary pattern is set, and in the subsequent books we learn next to nothing about his early life. Did he have parents, siblings, a home? What schooling did he get, if any? How could he possibly have served in WWII if he was in his mid-30s in the early 1960s? (Actually, this isn’t so improbable as it sounds–look up Calvin Graham sometime).  

We know he was raised in a big city (I’d say New York, but I’m biased), and we can take it as a given that he grew up fast and hard. That his early life was fraught with difficulty, made all the more challenging by a unique sort of wildness in him that nobody could ever fully understand–even other outsiders. But he isn’t much concerned with any of that. As Robert Burns pointed out, it’s a human thing to be haunted by the past, while fearing the future. A mouse only worries about what’s happening now–and so does a wolf. To our follow travelers on this planet, even if they remember the past, and plan for the future, now is really all there is. It’s not such a bad system, when you get right down to it.  

Perhaps in the army, perhaps before that, Parker met up with men who made their living by institutional robbery–taking money or goods from organizations. Stealing from individuals is more likely to lead to murder, which brings down too much heat for the limited rewards involved. Somebody gave Parker an introduction to this line of work. Now I wouldn’t care to say if Westlake ever read those Lone Wolf books I mentioned a ways back, but it’s worth noting that the hero of those books is a thief who was befriended as a young man by a master thief, who took him under his wing. An old gag in crime fiction now–not so familiar in 1914. Maybe Parker’s intro was Joe Sheer, the old jugger who serves as his contact for a while (and who so improbably asks for Parker’s help when he feels the walls closing in)–maybe not. But anyway, in Parker’s case, I think it was less a case of him finding a mentor than a peer group.  

Since I’m positing that Parker was born with the soul and instincts of a wolf, I’m assuming that wherever he found himself in human society, nothing ever seemed to make sense. Domesticated dogs adapt with remarkable alacrity to the oddities of the human world–first generation wolves reared as pets never do seem to get the hang of civilization. They always look like they’re ready to jump out of their skins–they feel like they’re in a madhouse, and it’s hard not to see their point sometimes, isn’t it? Parker saw it really well.  

Then he saw these other guys–heavy heisters. And there must have been a moment of recognition–of a pattern that fit, however imperfectly, the template inside his head. Men who walk among the common herd, without being part of it. Always looking for a badly guarded stash, the way a wolf looks for a lame elk or a sick caribou. Striking without warning, coordinating their efforts to get what they need, then heading back to their lairs, to hunt again later. Caching money here and there, often in holes in the ground, the way wolves bury uneaten portions of their kills. Able to work together, but not the way other humans do, with all that bureaucracy and boilerplate. They have nothing written down–they just know how they’re supposed to act–they learn what passes for their law from each other. And being humans, of course, they often fail to obey their laws–they betray each other, get greedy, get stupid, get dead. But living in a human world, Parker figures this is as good as it gets for him. Close enough. He’ll make it work. And woe betide the associate who makes it stop working. Parker will start seeing him as a corpse.

While they don’t live together in a pack structure most of the time, in the Stark-verse heisters do have a tenuous sense of camaraderie–at least in the sense that they know there’s nobody else out there who’d ever understand where they’re coming from. And now and again, a new recruit shows up, and here’s where Parker sometimes bends his “every man for himself once the job is over” rule just a bit. Alan Grofield, Stan Devers–these younger men he works with mean something to him–in his wolf-mind, are they his sons? Not quite, but there’s something more than simple pragmatism at work there. He inducts Devers into The Profession, sending him to learn more from Handy McKay–and he goes out of his way to work with (and sometimes rescue) Grofield, who was probably just starting out when he first met Parker, and whose jocular roguish ways probably amuse Parker more than he likes to let on. Parker can’t afford to be too picky about who he works with, but he definitely has his favorites. It’s not compassion, and it’s certainly not sentiment that guides him–it’s instinct. The next generation must be taught. Claire is the only one he’ll come for no matter what, but there are a few of his fellow hunters he’ll go the extra mile for–if the odds are right. He has a very small circle, but it pays to be inside of it–membership has its privileges.

So heisting it was then. There were other ways he could have gone. He could have tried organized crime. He must have come into contact with it here and there in his formative years. For a wolf man, it has some distinct advantages–a really strong pack, with an engrained sense of family, loyalty, and hierarchy. Trouble is, it has the stink of civilization and its rules all over it. There’s no real freedom–every move you make is watched, every score you make gets skimmed off the top by men who didn’t work for it, and that loyalty is really just a sham when the chips are down, as anybody who reads mob history knows. Same goes for any business, really–never trust a corporation. Parker isn’t interested in going into business with anybody. Too restricting.

But one could see a guy like Parker getting sucked into that life–and I think that’s exactly who Quittner in Butcher’s Moon is. Apparently a trusted consigliere, a planner, an enforcer–the syndicate equivalent of Parker, and he’s the only one among them who understands what they’re up against at the end. He knows it was a huge mistake to give Parker the finger, so to speak (I don’t want to spoil the book for anybody who hasn’t gotten to it yet–you can groan at the pun later). “He wasn’t the right man for that,” Quittner tells them. Right. Because he’s not a man. Because this is yet another instance where Parker gets enraged by something he can never understand in human nature–not cruelty–life is cruel–but senseless cruelty. Cruelty for its own sake. We like to think of ourselves as decent folk, we whose tax dollars pay for torture and carpet bombings, and in our folktales, wolves are cruel and rapacious and a metaphor for evil. But if a wolf could look into our hearts, he’d be revolted by what he saw. Not because we kill and maim, but because we like it too damn much. It’s not natural to us former apes–an acquired taste, that we rampantly overindulge.  

Maybe Westlake meant to do something with Quittner later on, and then changed his mind, but my own feeling is that he’s there to show us the road not taken–and to show us why Parker was smart not to take that road. Quittner is a failed Parker–his instincts and his cunning thrown away on an organization that can only make limited use of them. A prophet without honor in his own land, who nobody listens to until it’s much too late–and whose perceptions have perhaps been slightly dulled by living inside the lines too long.  

And there were other roads not taken–we see one of them when we meet Sandra Loscalzo, the bounty hunter, in the final trilogy of novels. And finally, Parker meets a girl of his own sort. I rather think Westlake made her a lesbian just to avoid the question of whether Parker’s pre-existing bond with Claire trumps the immediate sense of mutual understanding he has with Sandra. Like him, she has no children of her own, but she’s got a lover with a kid she supports–by legal means if possible, by other means if necessary. Parker thinks maybe she’s on the wrong side of the street working with him, but she says there are no sides. She talks about how her life is like a frozen lake, and every day she crosses a bit more of it, watching and listening to see if the ice is too thin–Parker rarely cares much for listening to people talk about themselves, but he’s fascinated. She makes perfect sense. He’s not the only one after all. Go figure.

But while Parker may no longer be the only one of his kind at the end of the saga, now I have to ask–is he out there in reality? Could a man think like a wolf? I honestly don’t know. I do know this–before we began to tame the land, raise crops and livestock, build settlements and towns, we lived very much like wolves–so much so that we saw the wolf not as an enemy, or an ‘endangered species’, but as our kindred. Our animus towards them only came to be once we started to settle down, and our cattle and sheep became prey for the wild packs. In our newly-constructed houses of straw we heard the distant howling that had perhaps once thrilled us with its abandon–and shivered. Because we were afraid of becoming their prey? Or because they reminded us of the freedom we’d given up for security?  

And we still don’t know what to feel about them–we’re still torn between love and hate, admiration and terror–as we are with long-dead outlaws, as we were with the American Indian–slaughtering one moment, romanticizing the next–so easy to admire what you are able to destroy. As one expert remarked to the New York Times, when a young loner wolf was discovered wandering Northern California recently, “When wolves come back, one side says it’s the end of civilization, our children will be dragged down at the bus stop–The other side thinks nature is finally back in balance and can we all have a group hug now.” We can’t be objective about them, ever. They seem to be pretty objective about us, though. They don’t have the luxury of mythology.

Why do we fear wolves so much more than we do mountain lions, bears, and other more powerful predators? Because we sense an intelligence in them that in some ways rivals our own. Unlike most dogs, wolves and coyotes have mad problem-solving skills, that can seem almost supernatural at times. We need every cultural and technological advantage we can muster to defeat them, and before the advent of very modern times, even that wasn’t always enough–sometimes it took a deeper understanding of the wolf’s mind to finish him. Take a moment now to read the story of Ernest Thompson Seton and Lobo, The King of Currampaw. It’s well worth the time.  

Now I realize I’m not writing for a nature blog here, and I hope you’ll bear with me while I get to the point of my referencing this famous story (Disney made a movie of it, full of ‘Real Life Adventure’ footage and folksy narration, and gave it a happy ending of course–and in this case, I guess I don’t mind that so much)–which is simply, suppose the story had gone differently? Suppose Lobo had a larger brain, opposable thumbs, the ability to manipulate his environment as we do, the ability to blend into human society without being easily detected, to make and execute complex plans, to anticipate and defeat the plans of his human opponents (not simply detect and avoid them), to obtain and employ firearms–but had retained the mindset of a wolf, the intense focus, the deep situational awareness, the lack of conscience or doubt, the absence of all the various dysfunctions and distractions and outright dementias that come with our human minds? Suppose he had all the powers of a man, while retaining the consciousness of a wolf? Then the story would have gone very differently, wouldn’t it? Then Ernest Thompson Seton wouldn’t have been around to tell us any story at all. He’d most likely have wound up in an unmarked grave, somewhere in the New Mexican hills.  

And here’s Parker. Contrary to what it says on the cover of that wonderful Gold Medal first edition paperback of The Rare Coin Score, he’s never as human as the rest of us, nor does he aspire to be. And that’s why he’s so damned interesting to read about–and why we’re torn between identifying with him, and thinking “Why in God’s name am I identifying with this monster?” But seriously–he’s the monster? There’s a mirror at the Bronx Zoo you should look at sometime. It’s a violent world he lives in, yes–but he didn’t make it that way. He didn’t choose to be be a wolf prowling the cities of men–that’s the hand he was dealt, and he plays it with cold efficiency. Trapped somewhere between the fictional milieus of Dashiell Hammett and Jack London, he makes the best he can of a bad situation. He doesn’t belong here, and he never will, but he’s not whining about it. He’s howling. At the Butcher’s Moon, if you will.

What would have happened if Westlake had lived to write a few more novels, I wonder? Would Parker finally have met an adversary who took his measure, found his Achilles Heel as Ernest Thompson Seton found Lobo’s, taken him down? He’s having a harder and harder time making ends meet in the Information Age, where there’s less and less room for a truly independent operator. We see him adapting, learning from each mistake, updating his tradecraft, but at his core he’s old school (the oldest), and there’s only so far he can go. But then again, how much further can this civilization of ours go? The cracks are already there, and getting wider. There will always come a point when everything old is new again.  

And even in the last few novels, he has more trouble with the old methods of hunting down carnivores–for all the fancy digital doo-dads, it always comes down to dogs, doesn’t it–the wolves that cast their lots with men. Ever wondered why he never pets one? Why they attack him so often? Why he tries to avoid robbing any establishment with a dog guarding it, though the fanciest alarm systems never give him much pause? Now you know. When Parker looks at a dog, he sees not Man’s Best Friend, but a bad blood relation.  

We’ll never know the end to his story, so in our minds he’s still out there, the Wolf Man. Roaming the urban wilderness, lurking in the shadows, watching for danger, slipping through the cracks, probing our defenses, looking for weak spots, opportunities–taking a toll on our livestock, but also disposing of vermin for us along the way–one might argue it’s a fair trade. And in reality–well, probably he isn’t there. Probably a human brain always comes with a human mind into the bargain, and the Parker Saga is just a remarkable storyteller’s Shaggy Man Story.    

But if he’s not out there on two legs, he’s certainly out there on four. Not just in the deep northern forests, and the arctic tundra. Right here, where we live. Remember those urban coyotes I mentioned? That lone wolf found roaming the California countryside? In Australia there’s dingos–midway between wolf and dog, able to solve complex problems and read human minds, they might have better suited my purpose here, but Parker is a Yank, and “The Dingo Man” just sounds funny.

Maybe you’re reading this with some portable device, out in a park somewhere on the west side of Manhattan, the Hollywood hills, the outskirts of Denver. If so, the eyes of wild hunters could be watching you right this very moment, studying you, deciding what to do next. That’s right. It’s hard to be around a carnivore, but who says we have a choice? Don’t worry, they usually know better than to hunt us–brings down the heat like nothing else. Probably they’ll just vanish silently into the brush, seeking their next score. You’ll never even know how close they were.

Lucky for us they don’t have guns.

Christopher Lyons is a very recently minted Westlake reader, a lifelong science fiction fan who has taken a notion to explore the crime genre for a while. He lives in Manhattan—Washington Heights, to be specific. He often exercise his dog in the shadow of the George Washington Bridge. He’s even walked across it a few times. He’s never seen a big mean-looking guy in ill fitting clothes stomping over it into the city. But he lives in hope.