Friday, November 14, 2008

Friday's Forgotten Books, November 14, 2008

J. Kingston Pierce (The Rap Sheet) reading

Ed Gorman is the author of dozens of novels. Recent ones include SLEEPING DOGS, CAGE OF NIGHT a
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THE HANDLE, Richard Stark

Hard to know if a book was a fairly easy go for the writer or if it drove him to drugs and e-porn. I hope The Handle by Richard Stark was a pleasure for Donald Westlake to write because it sure is a pleasure to read.

The Organization has decided that it's tired of this German guy running his big casino on an island in the Gulf of Mexico. He's beyond the jurisdiction of the Feds and it's unlikely Cuba will do much about him. Thus Parker is hired to take the casino and its other buildings down--literally. To blow them up.

Now while THE HANDLE is every bit as tough as Dick Cheney's heart, the hardboiled aspect is played off against the sorriest group of human beings Parker may ever have had to work with. And the sardonic way Westlake portrays them had me laughing out loud at several points.

Take your pick. There's the alcoholic hood who talks as if he's auditioning for a Noel Coward play; the mob gun dealer who had to quit drinking several months ago and has increased both his cigarette intake (four or five packs a day) while maintaining both his cancer cough and his enormous weight; the pedophile who turns out to be a ringer sent to spy in Parker and his friends; the Feds who are so inept both Parker and Grofield play games seeing who can lose their tails the fastest. And then there's the the married Grofield, Parker's professional acting buddy, who never passes up a chance to impose his charms on willing women. In this case he endeavors to put the whammy on the very sexy blonde Parker himself has been shacking up with. Isn't that called bird-dogging?

And then we have Baron Wolfgang Freidrich Kastelbern von Alstein, the man who owns the island and the casino and who, over the years, has managed to make The Third Man's Harry Lime look like a candidate for sainthood. Westlake spends a few pages on the Baron's history and it becomes one of the most fascinating parts of the book, especially his days in Europe during the big war.

The book is filled with the little touches that make the Stark books so memorable. My favorite description comes when Parker and the sexy blonde sit down to a dinner that Westlake describes as "viciously expensive."

Sophie Hannah writes bestselling psychological thrillers. Her first, Little Face, was recently published in America by Penguin. Her second, Hurting Distance, is published by Soho Press in hardcover. Penguin US will publish her third, The Point of Rescue, next year. Sophie is also a poet and short story writer. Her website is

I'm going to be greedy and choose not one book but an entire series of books: Jill McGown's Lloyd and Hill mystery series, that contains such gems as The Murders of Mrs Austin and Mrs Beale, A Shred of Evidence and Plots and Errors. McGown is a crime writer of unparalleled brilliance, and it totally baffles me that she is not better known and more widely read. Anyone who likes Colin Dexter's Inspector Morse books or Ruth Rendell's Inspector Wexford novels would love McGown's work. Her series characters, Lloyd and Hill, are police officers who work together. They are also a couple. They are brilliantly drawn, flawed but likeable and entirely plausible. I really looked forward to meeting them again in each book, but, even so, they are not the best thing about McGown's books. Her supreme talent was (for, sadly, she died recently) for creating supremely intricate, brilliant plots that would, frankly, make the work of the best Swiss watch-makers look slapdash. Her plotting has an almost mathematical neatness about it and the way the loose ends are surprisingly yet perfectly tied up at the end of each novel is a wonder to behold. McGown is the rightful heir to Agatha Christie's throne, and ought to be more widely recognised as such.

Dana King has reviewed over ninety books for New Mystery, and has several short stories published by New Mystery Reader and Thug Lit.

LEVINE, by Donald Westlake

Donald Westlake is best known for humorous crime fiction under his own name, and for the dark Parker stories published under the Richard Stark pseudonym. Levine, a 1984 collection of short stories originally published in mystery magazines between 1959 and 1984, is something else entirely.

Abe Levine is a detective in New York's 43rd Precinct. A gentle man, Levine is morbidly aware of his entry into what were then referred to as "the heart attack years." A common thread through all the stories is the frequency with which Levine's heart skips a beat, and how conscious this makes him of the fragility of life. His distaste for artificially hastened death, and his almost humanitarian desire to see those responsible brought to justice, must always be weighed against the effects of his efforts on his own deteriorating heart.

Few literary cops combine Levine's gentle and fragile nature with his passion for justice. The introduction to the collection contains Westlake's explanation for Levine's creation: "It has become the convention that policemen, professional detectives, are 'hardened' to death, 'immune' to life untimely nipped…It was the idea of a cop, a police detective, who was so intensely aware of his own inevitable death that he wound up hating people who took the idea of death frivolously that led me to Abe Levine."

LEVINE is, unfortunately, out of print, so the public library or a used bookstore will be required. While Abe Levine stands apart from Westlake's better known characters, the careful plotting and mastery of craft present in all of his work is not lacking. Anyone looking for something different from a familiar hand could hardly do better than to hunt up a copy of LEVINE.

Cathy Cole
Kerrie Smith
Martin Edwards
James Reasoner
Bill Crider
Scott D. Parker
David Cranmer

Paul Bishop
Barrie Summy
Patti O
Steve Lewis


David Cranmer said...

I saw a profile of Stark in the NY Times about ten years ago and bought Comeback. I have since tried to get my hands on all the Parker novels as well as anything else by Mr. Westlake. I'll definitely look for The Handle.

Corey Wilde said...

I'm currently reading one of Westlake's Dortmunder novels, DROWNED HOPES. I disremember when a series delighted me and made me laugh out loud as often as has Dortmunder and his crew. I thoroughly enjoy the Parker books and the stand-alones as well. Westlake is a national treasure.

Graham Powell said...

LEVINE is a great short story collection. By chance I happened to read the issue of, um, AHMM? in which the last Levine story appeared. Even then, in high school, I could tell it was special.

Amazing that Westlake also writes the Stark and Dortmunder series, innit?

pattinase (abbott) said...

He is amazing and I have to read more of him.

Peter Rozovsky said...

"The Handle" is maybe my second favorite of all the Parker novels. And the island has a cool name, too.
Detectives Beyond Borders
"Because Murder Is More Fun Away From Home"