Sat 10 Jan 2009
RICHARD STARK – Butcher’s Moon.
Random House, hardcover, 1974. Paperback reprint: Avon, 1985. UK edition: Coronet, pb, 1977.
To date  there have been sixteen novels about hard-bitten professional thief Parker, and Butcher’s Moon is the sixteenth. Nearly twice as long as any single previous entry in the series, it represents a culmination of themes and a summation of events, but leaves the eager reader afraid that Richard Stark (Donald E. Westlake) may have nothing left to say about his enigmatic antihero. Since at this writing it has been ten years since the publication of Butcher’s Moon, that conclusion seems warranted.
Parker and his sometime partner, actor Alan Grofield, return to Tyler, the scene of a botched armored-car robbery of several years previous, the take of which was abandoned out of necessity. At the time Parker had said, “I know where it is. Someday I’ll go back and get it.”
That day is now, and Parker sets out to retrieve the money from Lonzini, the mobster Parker figures found the money. When Lonzini fails to cooperate, Parker and Grofield begin pulling jobs — hitting a gambling casino, drug dealer, numbers operation, etc. Much like the Continental Op in Hammett’s Red Harvest, Parker’s activities trigger power plays within the local mob, while the level of violence escalates.
When Grofield is captured, Parker assembles a string of thieves (characters from previous Stark novels) to pull a simultaneous series of capers he has carefully worked out. From the grand haul these jobs will realize, Parker plans to take no share — he merely asks his fellow thieves to repay him for his work by helping him afterward: “I want Grofield back, and I want my money. And I want those people dead.”
The twelve men are to hit the mob “safe house” where Grofield is being held, and kill all his captors. Stark builds climax upon climax as the various capers play out and as bullets fly and bodies pile up.
Butcher’s Moon brings Parker full circle: Taking on the mob in order to retrieve “his” money (never mind that it was stolen from somebody else to begin with) was where Parker began in the trilogy of The Hunter (1962), The Man with the Getaway Face (1963), and The Outfit (1963).
Significantly, Butcher’s Moon reveals Parker a changed man. While neither he nor Stark would likely admit it, Parker has “mellowed” — he gathers his friends together to rescue a friend. And as one of those friends, father figure Handy McKay, tells him, “That’s not like you … going to all this trouble for somebody else ”
Handy also questions Parker’s seeking revenge: “I’ve never seen you do anything but play the hand you were dealt.”
Parker’s association with Grofield and his attachment to his live-in love, Claire (begun in The Rare Coin Score, 1967), have ever so subtly humanized him. This seems to make him, and Stark, uneasy. And that may explain the long silence from Stark since Butcher’s Moon.
If Butcher’s Moon is indeed the final Parker, crime fiction’s greatest antihero certainly goes out with a bang, with all the cast brought back on stage for one last supercaper. And while he may indeed be turning into a human being, Parker is no less capable of his usual coldblooded violence.
Nor is Stark shy about depicting such shocking scenes as the one in which Parker is delivered a severed finger that once belonged to Grofield (not only a continuing character in this series but the hero of four of his own Stark novels). When the mob bearer of these bloody tidings says “I’m only the messenger,” Parker shoots and kills him, saying, “Now you’re the message.”
Reprinted with permission from 1001 Midnights, edited by Bill Pronzini & Marcia Muller and published by The Battered Silicon Dispatch Box, 2007. Copyright © 1986, 2007 by the Pronzini-Muller Family Trust.