This is the fourth Parker book I’ve read in sequence and all have been very good. As one reviewer has said, Donald Westlake (writing as Richard Stark) is all about process and these books are nothing if not mechanistic in the way they unfold – and that is a virtue in books like these.
The Mourner differs from the others, however. In this one, I get the sense that Westlake decided to have a bit of fun. He riffs on The Maltese Falcon.
I couldn’t say whether its Dashiell Hammett’s novel or John Huston’s movie that provides the spark (I’ve seen the movie; I haven’t read the book), but as with The Maltese Falcon, the MacGuffin in The Mourner is a statue that a number of people want. (Granted, it’s a bigger deal in Falcon than in The Mourner.)
I suspect it’s Huston’s movie that Westlake plays cutesy with. As I was reading, particularly in the first half of the book, I kept thinking, “Why does this Auguste Menlo character seem so familiar?” Then it struck me: he’s Sydney Greenstreet from The Maltese Falcon! Both the speech and physical appearance of the Menlo character are very similar to Kaspar Gutman, the character Greenstreet plays in the movie.
The mechanistic aspect of how Parker stories unfold is as strong here as in any of the books but we also get a sense that, serious about his work though the author may be, he’s also playing.
Having said that, Westlake is too skilled and creative a writer to simply do a Parker take on the movie. Channeling the movie in the book’s first half seems to have delighted him but the novel certainly goes its own way, especially in the second half.
Once Part 3 kicks in with the usual Stark/Westlake switch to a new perspective (here, from Parker to Menlo), he starts adding detail, fleshing out the character of Auguste Menlo with background and motivation. Menlo becomes much more than the Greenstreet character from the movie, and more interesting – even sympathetic.
In the end, we have one of the Westlake’s most interesting and engaging characters. A scoundrel with a cherub smile.
This, along with the strands this Parker novel picks up from the three previous books, makes The Mourner my favourite of the novels I’ve read so far. I don’t like the word best but if forced to use it I would nominate this book while also hedging my bets by adding, “Or maybe The Hunter. It’s hard to choose.”
(And I’ve said nothing about the femme fatale, Bett Harrow …)