CONSIDERING WESTLAKE: SLAYGROUND

Slayground CoverAfter putting Parker on the road for a couple of books, Donald E. Westlake’s meaner pseudonym Richard Stark decided to show some restraint as well as utilizing a much smaller locations budget by trapping Parker in a single area and giving him the chance to play Rambo about a year before FIRST BLOOD hit book stands and started author David Morrell’s way to the bestseller lists. SLAYGROUND starts with an armored car job, fast getaway, and a deadly accident, that should be familiar to readers of Stark’s non-Parker works. This was the very same job and accident that ultimately caused Grofield to get turned into a spy by an unnamed government agency in THE BLACKBIRD. Unlike his plucky cad of a sometimes-partner, Parker does not get knocked unconscious during the auto wreck. In fact, he hoofs it from the scene before the local authorities arrive and makes his way to a nearby amusement park called Fun Island, a name that will become ironic in short order.

Unfortunate coincidence rears its ugly head, and Parker is seen fleeing into the park carrying a satchel by some gangsters and the crooked cops they are paying off. One check of the radio tells them exactly who this guy is and what’s in the bag: money. The cops give a cock-and-bull story about seeing Parker steal a car and flee away from the area, and then plans are made for the gangsters and cops to chase after the satchel and take it away from the guy who’s carrying it. The premise is a straightforward one, the likes of which a writer like Richard Stark can use to maximum suspense effect, and he certainly does that.

What follows is a tense game of cat and mouse over a two days period with Parker trapped in an amusement park with only one accessible way in or out. Initially armed with a pistol that’s no good for large numbers or long ranges, he must use things he finds in the park, set traps for his adversaries, and make preparations to stave off the inevitable siege. As the hour wanes, more bodies arrive ready to hunt the money. While most people would be left grappling with the animal instinct to hide and defend, this is Parker. He uses every second of his time to make/refine a plan. Before the long siege is over, more than his plan gets executed: Parker is going to leave more than a couple of corpses on Fun Island.

Donald E. Westlake’s Richard Stark pseudonym plays really well with the small locations. Sure, he has written a few books that traverse large swaths of the North American continent, but the stories still have an intimate feel to them. Place is rendered in shorthand, scenes are had, and then the action moves to the next place. It’s a very urbanized view of the world, one which feels like one city block can be the Bronx, Boston is found a few blocks north, Detroit a few blocks to the west, and Seattle the other side of town. This is not an exact reading of the material of course, but cities are cities, and while they can be individual in character when one gets down to the details, there are a lot of similarities between Austin, Boston, and any other major city you’d care to name and/or visit as a casual traveler.

SLAYGROUND strips away a lot of the road show aspects from the previous two books and performs the literary equivalent of Hitchcock’s film ROPE (1948). That film is famous for the illusion of being shot in one long, extended take instead of being broken in to several eight or twelve minute film reels. The film is an interesting experiment and debatable in terms of the success of its storytelling. Later films like David Fincher’s PANIC ROOM (2002) would attempt to recreate the claustrophobia evoked using a single location with extended scenes, also to interesting effect. Horror cinema has made good use of single locations—how many scary old house movies can you name off the top of your head?

SLAYGROUND sits quite comfortably among these scenarios. On the literary front, it’s close cousins to Richard Connell’s THE MOST DANGEROUS GAME and the older brother to Rambo’s first incarnation in David Morrell’s FIRST BLOOD. It is a limited location suspense thriller pitting a professional thief and planner against a bunch of overconfident opponents, allowing the first a chance to use both the terrain and the manmade elements against his enemies while having to deal with bad weather himself.

Parker is no stranger to thinking on his feet, and SLAYGROUND makes him do so quite often in its pages. The book is a page turner of the best sort, throwing its protagonist into a quagmire and then letting him thrash around for safety while sinking steadily deeper. The book has all the hallmarks of Richard Stark’s prose and plotting. It opens with the armored car job, builds to a high speed getaway, rolls the car, traps the occupants and then gets Parker on his feet and running. All in a single chapter, I might add. Then, it shifts gears for the rest of the book, delivering new bodies to search for the hiding crook, getting him stuck in building after building or out in the open. On my first read through, I glossed over the details of Parker’s predicament, eager to get to the meat of the matter. This time through, I have a much better appreciation for the efforts Westlake took to establish the box Parker was stuck in. The first time through, I wondered why Parker might not climb a fence and scale around the exterior until he gets back to someplace he can beat feet from . . . Silly me. It’s all pretty clear right at the beginning of Chapter 3.

There was no way out.

Parker spent over an hour going slowly around the perimeter of Fun Island, and there was no usable exit anywhere except the main gate he’d come through on the way in. Where he’d been seen by the cops.

The park was a large square shape, completely enclosed by the eight-foot-high board fence that was painted gray on the outside but on the inside was an endless mural of ocean, with ships and birds and distant islands painted on it. The whole idea of the place was that it was an island, cut off from the cares of the ordinary civilized world, and in their own way the people who’d built the park had succeeded just fine. Inside the fence, all the way around, there was a stream or moat about ten feet wide, now with a thin crust of ice on it, under which the water could be seen swirling along, black and cold. It was impossible to guess how deep it was, though probably not very. And it must be connected with a real stream some way, or it would have been turned off for the winter.

Apparently the people who ran this place were afraid their summertime customers might turn into wintertime vandals, because three secondary exits were boarded shut, there were marks to show where footbridges had been removed leading to these exits, and—most important—above the fence all the way around the park ran two inch thick strands of wire, bearing at intervals signs saying WARNING—HIGH VOLTAGE.

There was a waist high chain-link fence just inside the moat all the way around, probably meant to keep children from falling into the water. Parker walked along next to that fence, ignoring the structures behind him, studying the high board fence beyond the moat, the boarded-up exits, the two strands of wire.

There was no way out. (15-16)

It’s a closed system all right. A black box where we add one desperate killer protagonist and a whole bunch of guys who want what he’s got. Shake it and serve, extra bloody.

The novel’s structure is what we have come to expect from Parker’s exploits: Again, we have a novel split into four parts, three of them from Parker’s perspective and one from the secondary characters. Typically this outlier perspective section is Part 3, but here we get it earlier in Part 2 to build up the tension and the character dynamics in the bad guys—the crooks and cops are not easy bedfellows, you see, there’s plenty of intergroup tension at play here. And when the gangster’s real boss, Lozini, shows up to ride around in a golf cart, barking orders and ticking off a lot of people (an image that’s pretty terrific and rich with humor), well, there’s a sense of the tensions that were already present growing even thicker.

As Stark novels go, SLAYGROUND is a decent read. It does not rank among my favorites, but this has nothing to do with the quality of the prose itself. I found the first time through to be a thrilling experience, but revisiting the book leaves me less involved. I know how it all turns out, and the narrative is otherwise shallow. There is incident and resolution aplenty—hell, Part 3 and Part 4 are nothing but, incident, resolution, fallout, incident, resolution, fallout; Westlake’s penchant for getting Parker into trouble and getting him out again is unparalleled to this point—but I like the Stark books with more going on under the hood than I find in SLAYGROUND.

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SLAYGROUND is available in paperback and eBook from the University of Chicago Press. An audiobook is also available through Blackstone audio.

Next week, we will return to the wonderful world of Westlake’s comic capers as well as joining back up with the eternally downtrodden Dortmunder in his second outing: BANK SHOT. This time around, the gang are trying to crack a bank . . . on wheels. The book is available in eBook and audiobook editions.

Works Cited

Stark, Richard. SLAYGROUND. New York: Random House. 1969, 1971.

Note: The book has a funky copyright date because the first chapter contains materials that appeared in Richard Stark’s THE BLACKBIRD.

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