The Man With The Getaway Face

The Man With The Getaway Face is the second book in Westlake’s Parker series (under his Richard Gaunt nom-de-plume). There are similarities between Parker and Dortmunder, but they feel quite superficial, given the different worlds these crooks inhabit.

The 1960s* were a time when men were men, and none more so than Parker, a man looked at with longing by a woman with a "tongue moist and trembling". (This is the same chap, you may recall, who when first seen has hair resembling a bad toupee, and looks like his bedroom manner involves falling on you. "Like a tree." Seriously.) But if men were men, women were mostly bruised, or worse: when the job is over, Parker seeks out whores all the way down the East Coast from New York to Florida, each one a woman who would "have to be slapped before she’d get interested". Still, Parker is quite chivalric in his own way: "He didn’t get his kicks from hurting whores, it was just the only way he knew to get them interested." This side of Parker, thumping women, is something that never really came up in the first story, although he managed to kill one woman accidentally and threw another one around her apartment. The Dortmunder novels lack any of this violence; I hesitate to call it misogynistic, because it’s more misanthropic; Parker doesn’t single out, or spare anyone. Brain damaged chauffeurs, double-crossing diner waitresses, they all come off worse. Dortmunder, meanwhile, may be an unsuccessful criminal but is a successful human being: he has a girlfriend who cares enough about him to bake him a tuna casserole, and something of a conscience.

Both Parker and Dortmunder have in common a malign impact on those around them. In most of these stories, by the end nobody is any better off than they started, and usually worse. The Man With The Getaway Face begins with an ingenious solution to the problems created by the previous book, but by the end that solution is itself ruined: Parker is almost back to where he started, but with at least four more people dead. Nobody dies on stage in a Dortmunder novel until Drowned Hopes, which makes them an easier read. Perhaps when my daughter can understand what I’m reading to her, I’ll have to stop the Parkers.

The plot is quite clever, and quite cruel. It has some interesting explanations of how to structure a getaway from a robbery, if you’re in New York State in the 60s, and Westlake is good at creating nasty people with only a few paragraphs, so you don’t mind so much when Parker happens to them. But because the book is populated by a series of unsympathetic characters, it’s more difficult to get invested in them than in an equivalent Dortmunder.

That said, if there was an equivalent Dortmunder, it would have Kelp accidentally supergluing a rubber Halloween mask onto Dortmunder’s face, and they’d probably try to rob an armoured car and find themselves locked inside it – the two have parallels, but aren’t completely comparable.

So in conclusion, this is a grittier book. That’s not a compliment, as if I think every book that lacks battered prostitutes is a victim of political correctness. It’s to say that it’s a harder read and less enjoyable, rather like the lives of the people it describes. I still want to know what comes next, but I know it won’t make me happy like a Dortmunder novel would.

* It’s never completely clear what era Parker, or Dortmunder, inhabits. Over time, technology appears like answerphones and computers, but if we don’t credit Westlake with incredible clairvoyance and / or wilful anachronism, it’s easier to assume each book is set around the time it was written.

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