A Shaggy Parrot Story

The TV set in Tom Lindahl’s house is always on, but the sound is set on mute. Tom has a parrot, but it, too, has its sound turned off. With the exception of an occasional mutter or gurgle, the parrot has had no role model for human speech patterns: “The parrot had never spoken. The parrot had never been in a social situation where it seemed the right thing to do was to speak. The main Creature who lived with him …almost never spoke. It had never occurred to the parrot to speak.”

Lindahl bought the bird for companionship, a fair enough exchange because he has more or less become a hermit, his life given over to a brooding urge for revenge against his former employer, a small horse race track in rural New York. After a time, Lindahl’s wife grew tired of his festering bitterness. As Richard Stark’s new novel, “Ask the Parrot,” (Mysterious Press) begins, Lindahl’s wife has long gone, leaving him to seethe in the lonely confines of a small, cheap garage, made into a home in an all-but-forgotten hamlet with one gas station, a traffic signal, a few boarded-up businesses, and only a handful of occupied dwellings.

But I am getting ahead of myself. Tom Lindahl is not the protagonist of “Ask the Parrot”; Ed Smith is. Only Ed Smith is no more Ed Smith than Richard Stark is Richard Stark.

Ed Smith is Parker. Richard Stark is – well, he is Tucker Coe, and he is Donald E. Westlake, America’s answer to Georges Simenon, the prolific French writer of mysteries and dark, brooding personal intrigues. Writing about Parker, even changing his name from Westlake to Stark in order to get him in the Parker mood, Westlake tries to keep the dial set at noir. Jonathan Swift fooled a great many readers with the intent of his immortal satire, “A Modest Proposal,” but if you look closely, you see the edge of irony. Westlake writing as Westlake is often ironic; just as often he is flat-out funny.

When Westlake becomes Richard Stark, he finds a focus on a keen and compelling authorial edge. After you read enough of the novels Stark writes about Parker, the full force of their attraction comes through. Parker is a consummate professional. By choice, he lives a professional life, is entirely devoted to it, understands its ramifications completely, and is able to make survival-based decisions on the spot among his peers and those of us who live outside his world.

Over the course of his many adventures, Parker has not once let us know the why of his profession, only the how. Time after time, we read of his exploits and in spite of our selves, we are drawn to him for his ability to read people and to deal with them. I have from time to time thought he could do well as an attorney, a military man, a psychologist, even an academic. But there is no question at all of his ability to succeed at his actual profession. Parker is a skilled and accomplished crook.

The bank robbery Parker and two cohorts recently pulled in Massachusetts turned sour during the getaway. (See the details in Stark’s previous “Nobody Runs Forever.”) “Ask the Parrot” begins with Parker being chased by lawmen with helicopters and dogs. They are gaining on him.

“[Parker] paused, holding the rough bark of a tree, and looked up,” Stark writes, “and fifteen feet above him through the scattered thin trunks of this second-growth woods there stood a man….With a rifle.”

Now is the time to meet Tom Lindahl, the man with the rifle, the parrot, and a plan. Parker’s first thought – not a bad one, really – is that Lindahl believes Parker has some of the money from the robbery on his person. Actually, he does, but he quickly learns that it is compromised. The bills are new and the serial numbers are known. Lindahl’s plan involves unhindered access to the vault room of the race track where he was once a valued employee. “You want to talk to me?” Lindahl asks, “or,” hitching his head in the direction of the baying scent hounds, “them?”

Doing a quick assessment of his options, Parker “becomes” Ed Smith, willing to talk to Lindahl. In less time than it takes to tell, Parker is teamed up with Lindahl and another man, part of a posse searching for the escaped robbers.

Whether he is Donald E. Westlake, Tucker Coe, Richard Stark, or some as yet unrevealed pseudonym, you are always dealing with a writer who takes believable – repeat, believable – plotting to a higher plane of excellence. In “Bank Shot,” written as Westlake, his protagonists have undertaken the robbery of a new bank, set up in a large mobile home while its more permanent residence is being completed. After problems arise with the opening of the safe, the robbers do not abort the job; rather they steal the entire mobile home, thus buying the time to work on the troublesome safe at greater leisure.

While not on the same page of whimsy, “Ask the Parrot” sets Parker into the paradigm of story – get a character on the run, force him up a tree, then commence to throw rocks at him. Aristotle could not have phrased it better in his still valid classification of story-telling rules, “Poetics.”

In a world with few certainties, Parker must cope with changing loyalties, the uncertainties of dedicated amateurs, and the implications of that lovely word, vicissitudes. My favorite surprise involves Parker and Lindahl in a shopping mall, where Lindahl is sent to buy large duffle bags to hold the money from a proposed score, as well as gloves to wear against the leaving of tell-tale fingerprints. Off by himself for a few moments, Parker robs a small store for traveling cash and as well to set in motion a step which I should not reveal.

The parrot, you ask. What of the parrot?

“…some unknown foreign Creature was yelling the same sounds over and over again, and it came to the parrot that he could make those sounds himself,” the author reveals. “It might be satisfying to make those sounds. He and the Creature [Lindahl] could make those sounds together.

…the first thing he said was a rusty squawk, which was only natural. But then he got it: ‘Air izzi? Air Izzi? Air izzi?’”

Donald E. Westlake is accomplished and entertaining; no question about that. Richard Stark is something entirely else. He is nothing less than a compulsion, a world and genre unto himself. You can, at some peril, go through your mystery-reading career without recourse to Westlake, but you cannot take your efforts seriously without Richard Stark and Parker.