The first few lines of Ask the Parrot parachute the reader into the middle of a manhunt in the backwoods of New England—and into the life of an incredibly dangerous man.
Parker, as Richard Stark (the dark avatar of Columbia County mystery grandmaster Donald E. Westlake) christened his antihero many years ago, is fleeing a violent bank robbery. One of his co-conspirators has already been caught. Parker is running out of chances when he meets Tom Lindahl.
Lindahl is a hermit and embittered idealist, with an ulterior motive for hunting a bank robber: He would really, really like to meet one. Actually, he’d like to hire one, more or less. Ever the opportunist, Parker sees Lindahl’s criminal yearnings as a path through the maze of being a wanted man in the 21st century, when criminals face formidable high-tech odds and very few manage to dodge the long arm of the law for long. Stonehearted and stonefaced even by noir thriller standards, Parker assesses Lindahl’s dream of the perfect crime to see what he can take.
The devil, as we all know, is in the details. The reaction of ordinary citizens in the midst of a pervasive aura of do-or-die violence mainly reveals that there is no such thing as an ordinary citizen.
Nor is Parker any ordinary criminal—not that those exist either. Calculating, always calculating, he convinces Lindahl that their only hope is to join forces with the posses searching for the bank robbers. In the process, a fellow searcher—a comparatively noncriminal soul—goes a bit wild and winds up murdering a complete innocent. This event has one meaning for Parker, another for Lindahl, and yet another for the perp.
And that’s just the beginning of a chain of events that will warp an entire community beyond belief. Lindahl is an eccentric who thinks that his “perfect crime” will be the ultimate payback to the greedy creeps who took revenge on him for blowing the whistle on their scam. He’s highly motivated to conceal the true identity of his houseguest, so at first he and Parker make an effective—if uneasy—team, plotting a major heist from the corrupt local racetrack.
But Lindahl’s neighbors take more interest in the situation than he’d expected, and they’re revealed to be a mixed lot, some altruistic, others as homicidal as any hard case Parker could ever have hooked up with, albeit not so well-organized. Murphy’s law is running 30 mph over the speed limit, and not even one cold, hard mofo like Parker can completely call the next play, although it’s impressive to watch him try.
Greed is a pretty universal human failing, and you might say it takes a thief to do wrong right. An early scene in which Parker explains to Lindahl why he can’t just take the money and run off to Paradise neatly illustrates the difference between the professional criminal mentality and the Joe Citizen who might fantasize about a crime, and in fact might end up committing one through passion or poor judgment. Our prisons are full of the latter, whilst many of the former walk unmolested; Parker counts on that.
In a prior novel, Nobody Runs Forever, Stark detailed the bungled bank robbery that led to the manhunt that led Parker to Lindahl, and the chain of events that follows with the inexorable logic of human nature and cold hard fate. Reading Ask the Parrot, I found myself itching to read this backstory—which will probably leave me wanting to know what Parker did in the many books before that. Longtime Stark/Westlake fans, of whom there are many, will not be disappointed. Parker is lean, mean, and addictive.
There are mysteries, and then there is The Mystery: Why do people make such a mess of their lives? Parker doesn’t give it much thought, but Donald E. Westlake has built a career (or two) on it. Lucky for us.