It’s been ten years since Donald Westlake left us, and it’s a loss that’s still deeply felt for those of us with a taste for pure throwback noir novels. Westlake was the creator and author, under the pseudonym Richard Stark, of a series of novels featuring the enigmatic professional criminal known only as Parker; while the character was popular enough to spawn a huge number of imitations (and a series of loose film adaptations, none of which, with the exception of 1967’s Point Blank, really managed to capture his essence), crime fiction has moved in a very different direction, and it’s more than just nostalgia that creates a real sense of loss that we won’t see his like again.
There were an astounding 24 Parker novels produced by Westlake in his lifetime, but he took a prolonged hiatus from the character following the sixteenth (1974’s Butcher’s Moon). He felt burned out and a bit alienated from Parker, and wanted to work on other projects. It would be the last we would see of the coolly competent, implacable heist man for over twenty years. When Parker returned in 1997 with Comeback, there were concerns that he might not translate into the modern era, but such worries underestimated Westlake’s extreme proficiency with the form, and other than a few awkward moments, he picked up where he left off without a hitch. Before his death in 2008, he planned to tell his final Parker stories in a trilogy of novels: Nobody Runs Forever, Ask the Parrot, and Dirty Money.
The second of the three was published in 2006, and it’s uncharacteristic in a lot of ways. Parker is entirely out of his element: on the run and without any of his usual accomplices, he finds himself in a small town in rural New York state. He’s wanted by the law for a major bank heist, he’s flat broke, and he has no allies, no armament, and no identification. All his usual resources are out of reach, and in order to survive, he has to do the unthinkable: place his trust in one of the small-town nobodies to get out. One of the crucial elements of Parker’s character is that he trusts no one (an instinct that usually proves quite correct), and hates working with amateurs, who lack the skills, sense, and instincts necessary to stay out of trouble. By what seems to be a stroke of luck, he ends up as part of the posse that’s meant to be hunting him — and makes the acquaintance of one Tom Lindahl, an embittered and lonely man who is his only protection, and might also have the inside track on a possible big score. Taking on the vague identity of one Ed Smith, Parker puts his trust in a man who has no criminal history, no skills, and a personality that sets off one warning bell after another in the heist man’s mind. But it’s his only chance; and anyone who’s ever read a Parker novel before knows it’s just going to get more complicated from there.
Ask the Parrot (the title is drawn from Tom Lindahl’s pet bird, which can’t talk and which he never bothered to name) is one of the best of the post-Comeback Parker novels, both for what it does and for what it doesn’t do. It’s remarkably well-adapted to its era; a lot of the early Parker books, as with many examples of pre-1990s crime fiction, had plots that simply wouldn’t work in the age of high technology, the internet, the surveillance state, and the age of the mega-corporation. But Ask the Parrot‘s semi-rural setting functions as more than just local color: its lack of sophistication and resources puts Parker out of his comfort zone, and also provides a justification for the relatively low-tech nature of the racetrack heist that acts as its MacGuffin. But the spirit of the age is present, and makes Parker (and Westlake) do some heavy lifting: there are automatic cameras, digital ID cards, and instant communications between law enforcement agencies to deal with. Parker finds himself trapped not by the severity of his crimes, but by his loss of a driver’s license that could pass electronic inspection at a roadblock.
More than this, though, Westlake does a pretty amazing job of placing his story convincingly in the era of the severe national hangover of the late Bush years. The town of Pooley is very much like most of rural America in 2006: run down, decrepit, full of a graying population in the middle of realizing their American dream was not going to come true and ambitious young people trying to figure out angles to make up for its absence. We run into hangdog characters embittered by layoffs, business failures, mass incarceration, and the Iraq War. It isn’t quite the nightmare collapse the country would undergo just a few years later (when Westlake, perhaps wisely, decided to check out on us), but it’s still a real bummer of a look at small-town America, wracked by foreclosures and a lack of meaningful employment, drawn expertly by the hand of a master of lean, tight prose.
There’s also a moral dimension to Ask the Parrot that gives it some real depth. It’s almost a crime in itself to charge Parker with appearing in a novel with moral complexity; he’s infamous, after all, for his extreme pragmatism and amoral approach to his chosen profession. But, surrounded not by greedy peers or hard-ass gangsters and lawmen, Parker finds something like mercy, if not actual pity, in his behavior towards so many people entirely out of their depth. Of course, he would never admit to feeling empathy towards the likes of the small-timer who accidentally shoots a derelict during the manhunt, or to the burnt-out shell that is Tom Lindahl; he’d argue that he was merely being practical and doing what was best to extract himself from a bad situation. But some of his behavior, combined with the characters he interacts with, infuses Ask the Parrot with meaning that’s lacking in some of the earlier books.
Parker is the ultimate professional, functioning without emotion to do whatever is necessary to pull off a job with the highest reward for the lowest risk; Tom Lindahl is the ultimate amateur, overwhelmed with emotions he cannot fully understand or articulate, completely conflicted about everything including his own emotions. The fact that the two of them find a way to work together is proof that even towards the end, neither Parker nor Westlake lost a step, and may have even been getting stronger.