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the man with the getaway face

22 may 2022

In the 2000s, University of Chicago Press reprinted about a score of Donald E. Westlake's Parker crime novels. (Westlake wrote them under the pseudonym Richard Stark.) The Man with the Getaway Face (1963) appeared at my local thrift store, and I grabbed it, to fill a bit of this big deficit in my reading of American noir.

Something happens in a previous Parker novel, or maybe just in a purpose-built backstory, to motivate Parker – a high-class highway robber – to get one of those new faces that plastic surgeons of the movies are always fashioning for shady characters on the run. So Parker is The Man with the Getaway Face. Parker leaves the doctor's in Nebraska headed for New Jersey, in pursuit of a sure thing in the form of an armored-car heist.

The heist itself, a conspiracy among four robbers only two of whom trust each other, is a masterpiece of intricate storytelling. But a plain old heist, even one riddled with "crosses," wouldn't be enough for a whole novel. Westlake thus introduces the twist that distinguishes The Man with the Getaway Face. The twist takes the form of a punch-drunk enforcer for the plastic surgeon, Stubbs, who had once worked with the Communist doctor protecting striking workers. Stubbs is doggedly loyal to the doctor, and always on the lookout for "patients" who might betray or harm his patron. When the doctor is murdered, Stubbs suspects that Parker has done exactly that (though the reader knows Parker hasn't). Stubbs joins forces with three of the doctor's pals to hunt Parker down, just as Parker is trying to plan the heist.

The Man with the Getaway Face is a third-person narrative that stays mostly in Parker's point of view, sometimes venturing into Stubbs'. The main weakness in the novel is the Stubbs subplot. The mechanism is far-fetched, and the characters involved in that subplot so obtuse, their motives so opaque, that at one point Parker simply tells them "You three are morons" (213).

But the novel remains interesting as an example of a hard-boiled crime novel with completely expurgated dialogue. I don't remember a character even saying "hell" or "damn." For the most part they speak standard English with few phrases even in thieves' argot. Either editorial constraints, or the appeal of a stylistic challenge, set Westlake the task of writing a tough-guy novel without using even the milder resources of American profanity – which would so completely change the language of fiction just a few years later.

Stark, Richard [Donald E. Westlake]. The Man with the Getaway Face. 1963. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2008. PS 3573 .E9M3