Rob Price
Gutbrain Records
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2020 July 08 • Wednesday

Donald E. Westlake's Parker series, launched in 1962 under the pen name of Richard Stark, remains a high point of tough and fast-paced crime action fiction.

Parker is a professional thief, big score such as armored cars and banks and things like that. Westlake had several interesting things to say about the character, such as that he was "Dillinger mythologized into a machine".

The really good Parker novels, of which there are quite a few, leave you hungry for more like them. And there are a few of those as well.

One of the absolute best, which was first published a couple of years before the first Parker novel, is Jay Flynn's The Action Man.

It was this article by Bill Pronzini that alerted me to the existence of this book. The article itself is well worth reading.

Denton Farr is rich, successful, strong, confident, experienceds, basically has everything. But, you know, he's something of a character. Once a year he pulls a job. Never the same kind of job twice, never near where he lives. But there's something about the planning and execution of a caper that turns him on like nothing else does.

He had come home knowing an easy way to get money. Find out who's got some, then find a neat way to get it.

Neat meaning don't get caught.

He had not been caught. Ever.

There was plenty of money now. But the only thing with any beat to it was the action of going after more.

In The Action Man he breaks one of his own rules when he gets wind of a massive army payroll just waiting to be taken from a bank that's literally across the street from one of the two bars that he owns.

(The book takes place in "Peninsula City" which is not far from San Francisco and presumably one of the cities on the Peninsula Bay Area.)

Flynn establishes the character, a type who could walk over most Men's Adventure Magazine heroes without sweating it, and reveals him to the reader layer by layer.

Farr doesn't take chances.
He sat at the counter and had steak and fried eggs and hash-browned potatoes and four cups of coffee, and he thought about the possibilities of taking that payroll. It couldn't be easy or it would have been done before. He would have to do a lot of looking—first for the way to do it, then for the right men for the job—and if there wasn't one absolutely certain method of operation to use, and at least one alternate that would give a ninety per cent chance of success and getting away clean, he would have to forget it.

Farr has has a local enemy, a television personality who was able to put the screws on him pretty badly one time.

In revenge, Farr married the woman that this other man had been in love with and, with an unbreakable hold on her, sleeps around and does whatever he can to make her unhappy, thus hurting his erstwhile antagonist.

In most books, that storyline would end there but The Action Man is on a higher level. This particular subplot isn't just a subplot and takes a few unexpected turns and leads to developments that are crucial both to the main character and the plot itself.

Another wrinkle: you don't do something this major on your own. Farr gets in touch early on with a crime syndicate liaison that he always uses for connections and materials.

This man, known as The Commissioner, would dismiss the job as impossible if anybody but Farr were pitching it. But it is Farr, so it is possible, even likely, but the organized crime families are issuing a very firm "No".

The political fall-out from the operation, they feel, will cost them much more money than any cut of the proceeds can bring them.

So Farr gets it straight. Stay away from it—or else.

This is just another item on his list of things to watch out for.

The writing style throughout is perfect. Denton Farr has more bases covered than a reader is likely to think of. He's not just wealthy, he's a well known and extremely well liked and respected member of his community.

Nothing he ever does is rushed or sloppy or poorly thought out.

At one point Farr is visited by a police officer, a Captain of Inspectors named Gene Nicholls. Consider how well Farr has laid his ground work here, and that it's not just laying groundwork but also sincerely part of who he is.

Gene Nicholls liked Denton Farr. Hell, every man in the department did. He was good for five hundred tickets to the Policeman's Ball every year, and the tab for the stuff they fed the kids at the Christmas party. He would toss a cop who tried using his badge to cadge a free drink out on the street, and then send him a check for a hundred bucks when he got married. At least a dozen men in the department, turned down by every bank in town and even the loan companies, were buying houses of their own because Dent Farr let them have the down payment on a no-interest note they could take ten years to pay back, if they had to. For guys who were having a tough time bringing up four kids on a take-home of two eighty-five a month, Dent Farr had picked up the cost of babies and funerals. In most cases he did this anonymously. Where it wasn't anonymous it was a confidential matter between Farr and the other party involved.

Denton Farr asked no favors. He even paid his parking tags.

The cops of Peninsula City would fight each other to protect him.

The Parker of the Richard Stark could never be this sort of person. Parker isn't personable. By necessity he makes a virtue of distance, blankness, neither expecting or helping beyond a brutally simple binary logic of how to do what must be done.

Denton Farr, already set for life, is a man with many intimacies, pleasures, desires and at least this one seemingly pathological drive for a certain kind of "action"

It's an excellent book, without question one of the greatest of these crime heist tough-guy novels.

An additional note: at the bank, "The assistant cashier's name was Charles Rouse". Charles Rouse as in Charlie Rouse, the alto player for Thelonious Monk's quartet? Coincidence? We are unlikely ever to know.

Also, while it would probably wouldn't be useful to classify this novel—and the Parker books and other members of the club—as "existential" fiction and therefore more serious and, I don't know, artistic than what we'd call them otherwise, these books do often fit that description, and the very last line of The Action Man rather pleasantly reminded me of the very last line of L'Etranger.

The first line is "The dawn seeped, thin and gray, through the restless morning fog, lightening the hardly-moving surface of the bay, alerting the birds in the live oaks and pine forests of the hillsides".