The Sour Lemon Score

The Sour Lemon Score

The Sour Lemon Score is the twelfth entry in the legendary Parker crime fiction series, published in 1969. Like the phenomenal series opener, The Hunter, this isn’t really a heist novel, but a story about Parker trying to track down and get revenge on the man who double-crossed him, nearly killed him and took his money.

As the story opens, Parker and three accomplices are about to execute a heist of a cash delivery at a bank. This was a great scene; the clever use of radio-controlled explosives, smoke grenades, deception and professional violence made it the kind of well-planned commando-theft operation that makes Parker novels so fun to read.

Equally fun are the inevitable f*k-ups and double-crosses that turn a smooth heist job into a twisted, violent novel-length adventure. In this case, the cross comes courtesy of the twitchy, sketchy driver George Uhl, who decides to try to take the whole pie by eliminating the other heisters just as they’re about to divvy it up. Unfortunately for him, Parker gets away, and the rest of the novel is basically a detective story from the point of view of a ruthless, sociopathic criminal. Because Parker is a detective from hell, who will beat, threaten, rob, vandalize, deceive or kill anyone he damn well pleases until he gets what he wants: his loot, and George Uhl’s head.

Donald Westlake (writing as Richard Stark), author of over a hundred mystery and crime novels, excels at tight plotting and detailed, realistic procedurals. We are taken step-by-step through Parker’s investigation as he relentlessly pursues Uhl’s associates across the eastern seaboard, always seemingly one step behind Uhl. His task is complicated when a psychopathic associate of Uhl named Matthew Rosenstein gets involved in the chase, and soon the three very dangerous men are converging on the quiet suburban family home of a high school fan-boy of Uhl’s who gets far more excitement than he bargained for. The conclusion was slightly out of character for Parker, but it did leave loose ends that would be tied up in the 20th entry in the series, Firebreak, when some of these characters return to bother Parker 30 years later.

Another thing that makes Westlake such a great writer is his gift for creating incredibly well-drawn, memorable characters. The old-fashioned granny who sells Parker black market guns, the whiny single urban female who can’t say no to her abusive ex-boyfriend, the brutal, sadistic Rosenstein and his foppish gay partner Brock, the square family man Saugherty who fantasizes about running with the bad boys, the slimy, psychopathic George Uhl–this short novel has an amazing array of characters who are damaged and dangerous in totally believable ways.

After the relatively weak previous entry in the series, The Black Ice Score, The Sour Lemon Score is a return to form for author Westlake, and a return to the brutal, unstoppable force that is Parker when someone has screwed him over.  Highly recommended for fans of hard-boiled crime fiction or just plain great story-telling.

Get a copy of The Sour Lemon Score here.

The XYY Man

The XYY Man

Cat burglary and espionage are two of my favorite categories of Shadow op; any story that combines them in a believable way is going to go on my to-read list.

The XYY Man, published in 1970 by Kenneth Royce, is such a story. It’s the first of a series of eight novels about William “Spider” Scott, a skilled “creeper” (cat burglar) and occasional British government operative. The novel was adapted as a 3-part British TV series pilot in 1976 and returned for 10 more episodes in 1977.

The story starts slowly as we’re introduced to the protagonist, a second-story man who has just been released from his third stay in prison and is determined to go straight. We also meet his devoted girlfriend Maggie and his square cop brother Dick, whose influence is the only thing keeping Spider from going back to his old life of crime. Meanwhile, a nasty copper named Bulman with a personal grudge is harassing Spider, accusing him of another burglary and preventing his brother from advancing in the force.

Things look bleak for Spider when a man named Fairfax approaches him out of the blue and makes him an offer he can’t refuse: Bulman will be called off, Dick will be given a promotion, and Spider will receive 15000 pounds to set himself up with a legitimate business and a new life with Maggie. All Spider has to do is steal some documents from a safe in the Chinese Legation in London—which turns out to be the most secure, unfriendly building Spider has ever seen. And if he’s caught, his sponsors will deny all involvement and Spider will have to face the music like a common criminal.

Spider initially refuses, considering it a mission impossible and not wanting to spend his best remaining years in a tough prison, or six feet under if the Chinese get him. But after casing the building carefully, the sheer challenge of it gets his juices flowing and he decides to give it a go. It’s the same old story we see time and time again with Shadow-oppers: the safe, square, daytime life just can’t compete with the buzz of breaking the law, living on the edge and operating in the shadows.

The story kicks into gear as Spider goes ahead with the op, breaking into the Legation building from an adjoining rooftop, creeping past alarms and into the safe room. But things go sideways when he discovers the shocking information the documents contain, and the next thing we know Spider is a fugitive—from British intelligence, the police, the Chinese, Maggie, Dick and soon, the CIA and the KGB. Spider has to evade them all and figure out what to do when you have nowhere to go and you’re the most wanted man in London, if not the world. In other words, it’s a Shadow operator’s worst nightmare, but a shadow-fiction reader’s dream scenario.

I liked the first-person, real-time perspective this novel gives you of the creeper Scott as he tries to complete his mission, evade his pursuers and extricate himself from an epic international clusterf*k on the streets of London. We get an up-close look at some of the tricks of his trade, the quick wits required and the intensity of being a most-wanted fugitive on the run. There were some twists at the end that I found a little confusing and the story wrapped up a bit too quickly, but otherwise it was a gripping story.

My only other criticism is that the writing was a bit awkward and difficult to follow at times, particularly for an American reading in 2021. It reminded me of an early Jack Higgins novel, with its unpolished style and street-level view of British Shadow operatives of a bygone era. But the plot was compelling, the action exciting but never over the top, and the main character Spider the kind of protagonist the shadow-fiction fan has to root for. I enjoyed The XXY Man and will be reviewing other installments of the Spider Scott series in the near future. Recommended for fans of old-school crime, spy and adventure fiction.

Thai Horse

Thai Horse

After enjoying Chameleon, I decided to try another thriller by William Diehl: Thai Horse, published in 1987.

The novel concerns the trials and tribulations of Christian Hatcher, an ultra-lethal shadow operative who has been doing dirty deeds for a deep black military outfit called the “Shadow Brigade” since the Vietnam War. Hatcher’s Brigade director is a devious man named Sloan, who was responsible for Hatcher getting locked up in a brutal Central American prison for the past three years. Sloan has evidence that an old Annapolis buddy of Hatcher’s named Cody—who was allegedly killed when his plane was shot down in ‘Nam back in ’73—is still alive and may be involved in organized crime in Southeast Asia. Cody is the son of a revered four-star general with terminal cancer who wishes to see his son one last time. To avoid any embarrassing publicity, the job is given to the Shadow Brigade, and Sloan promptly gets Hatcher released from prison and offers him the mission.

(As a side note, I liked Hatcher’s description of Sloan:

A hundred years ago, thought Hatcher, Sloan would have been hawking elixirs from the back of a wagon or selling shares in the Brooklyn Bridge. Now he sold dirty tricks with fictions of adventure and patriotism, seducing wide-eyed young men and women into the shadow wars, to become assassins, saboteurs, gunrunners, second-story men, safe crackers, even mercenaries, all for the glory of flag and country. Hatcher had met Sloan in the time of his innocence and had bought the lie.

Let’s face it, it’s shady recruiters like Sloan who make the shadow-fiction world go round!)

Hatcher gets on the case, and soon lands in Hong Kong, an old haunt where he once infiltrated the criminal underworld as a Shadow Brigade operative. He makes contact with an old American friend named “China” Cohen, a likeable scoundrel who is now the “white Tsu Fi”—the legendary boss of a Hong Kong triad. It turns out that the leaders of the most powerful triad have good personal reasons to want Hatcher dead, and he soon finds himself the target of a big-time hit. This leads to a scene reminiscent of the assault on Tony Montana’s estate in the classic 1983 film Scarface, as black-turtlenecked, submachine gun-toting hitmen storm Cohen’s walled compound.

Following a lead that a Dutch smugger may have information about Cody, Hatcher, Cohen and an old Asian flame named Daphne head upriver into outlaw territory ruled by the notoriously brutal gangster Sam-Sam Sam. Here the movie that came to mind was Apocalypse Now!, as the crew encounters colorful, violent characters of various races and nationalities on the river, Hatcher finds his target and things go sideways in an explosively bloody way.

The intrigue gets ever more complex as people near Hatcher are knocked off, Sloan continues to be devious, drug lords prepare a massive shipment, a terrorist attack hits Paris, the rival triad leader hunts Hatcher, Hatcher hunts Cody, a group of colorful expatriate Vietnam vets gets involved, and it all somehow revolves around the meaning of the mysterious term “Thai Horse”. Is it Cody? Someone else? An organization? An operation? A drug? Or just an old Thai legend? All is revealed in the last 60 or 70 pages, as Hatcher solves the mysteries of Cody and the Thai Horse, his beef with the triad comes to an ultra-violent climax, and various personal scores are settled in brutal ways.

Like Chameleon, Thai Horse is reminiscent of  Eric Van Lustbader’s work from that era, and both authors were clearly influenced by thriller mega-seller Robert Ludlum. Like them, Diehl gets a little melodramatic, wordy and implausible at times, but he knows how to keep the pages turning and construct a complex but entertaining yarn. If you like shadow warfare with an Asian flavor, deadly assassins, international conspiracies, war-time backstories, strong characters, brutal violence, stylish romance, a dash of explicit sex and just enough realism to make the story plausible without becoming dull, you should enjoy this novel.

Get a copy of Thai Horse here.

The Black Ice Score

The Black Ice Score

Black Ice Score, published in 1968 by Donald Westlake (writing as Richard Stark), is the eleventh entry in the incomparable Parker series about an ultra-tough but likeable heist-man.

This time the target of Parker’s heist is $700k worth of diamonds smuggled into New York by the corrupt leader of a small African nation called Dhaba. The diamonds are being kept on the top floor of a museum where the leader’s brutal brothers-in-law have taken residence and guard them 24/7. A diplomat from Dhaba wishes to steal the diamonds back on behalf of his countrymen, so he finds the best man in the business and hires him as a consultant. Parker’s task is to devise a plan to get into the building, past the guards and grab the diamonds. His job is complicated by a group of white colonials allied with a black general from Dhaba, who have learned about the diamonds and want them to fund their own takeover of the country. They are trying to strong-arm Parker into telling them where the diamonds are, going so far as to kidnap his steady girlfriend Claire and forcing him to cooperate. There’s also a joker in the pack in the form of a shifty, unpredictable character named Hoskins who has a bad habit of annoying Parker and appearing at inopportune times (Westlake loves these characters).

This is an atypical entry in the series in several respects. For one, Parker is not doing the job himself, but is only acting as a paid consultant for amateurs. He plans the heist and trains the Africans, but doesn’t participate directly in the theft. This is obviously a let down for Parker fans, sort of like going to an Elvis concert and being told that an impersonator is going to perform instead—though the author does a pretty good job of making the amateurs’ point of view interesting. The international political angle is also unusual for this series, which is normally apolitical and focused entirely on the all-American business of taking down big scores. In the spy-crazy 1960s it seemed that every thief and thug was getting a piece of the geopolitical action. Third, Parker seems strangely charitable and caring at times compared to his brutal sociopathic persona earlier in the series. Apparently his long-term relationship with Claire is softening him and making him a bit less Terminator-like than before.

There were some interesting moments in this story for students of shadow operations. The planning of the heist, the social engineering used to case the building, and the tools and tactics employed were reminiscent of the antics of real-world master jewel thief William Mason that I discussed in this review. This is the most ninja-like op in the series so far: the use of deception to gain entry to a stronghold, crossing from rooftop to rooftop, roping down an elevator shaft, using gas bombs to incapacitate guards, dressing all in black, surprise attacks, are all classic ninja tactics, handled with Westlake’s trademark realism.

The short novel moves quickly to a climax as the theft gets very bloody, bodies pile up, and Parker makes his re-appearance just in time. Hoskins is still a joker, the colonialists still hold the trump card Claire, and Parker has to bluff and go all-in to win with the hand he’s dealt. While risking his neck to save a woman wasn’t the old Parker’s style, this slightly kinder, gentler Parker does just that to try to save Claire from the clutches of the enemy.

This was definitely a lesser entry in the series, but still entertaining and worth the few hours spent reading it if you like heist novels and appreciate quality writing. Westlake is the genre’s master and Parker its greatest character, so even a sub-par installment is a cut above most other novels of its kind.

Get a copy of The Black Ice Score here.

Maxwell’s Train

Maxwell’s Train

One of the fascinating things about reading espionage and crime thrillers from several decades ago is how prescient they can be about real-world shadow war. The recently reviewed Black Heart and Quiller Solitaire are cases in point, in the way they uncannily foreshadowed aspects of the 9/11 attacks. This was the idea behind the Deparment 17 project—to study shadow-fiction for its intelligence insights—and it remains a work in progress. It’s easy to forget that before the 1990s there had never been a major terrorist attack on North American soil, and Americans were still rather innocent to the threat. The 1984 thriller Maxwell’s Train, by Christopher Hyde, is another older novel that anticipates this possibility and serves up a scary scenario that could yet prove prophetic.

The narrative begins as a heist story. Harry Maxwell, once a bright, idealistic young man with big dreams from a good family, fell in with the wrong crowd and spent 7 years trafficking drugs, only getting out when he and his partner in crime Daniel were nearly killed in a rip-off. At age 35, he finds himself working as a lowly Amtrak car cleaner, with no prospects and not much to live for. Then one day he notices a strange car attached to a train and learns that it transports freshly printed bills from the Federal Reserve—some thirty-five million dollars worth, to be exact. This is enough to get Harry excited about life again, so he assembles a crew with his buddy Daniel and two other under-achievers with nothing to lose, and they begin planning the heist of the century.

The planning stage of the heist seemed rather rushed for a job of this magnitude, but there is enough descriptive detail to keep things plausible. The plan is rather ingenious, as it entails using a coffin to bring one of the men and supplies onto the train and to offload the loot, and the gassing of the security guards in the money car through a ventilation shaft. I don’t want to spoil things for you, but let’s just say the thieves get quite a shock when they force open the car door and see what’s inside.

At this point the novel transitions to the main plot: a hijacking by seven of the nastiest international terrorists in the business—veterans of the European Baader-Meinhof group, Libyan special forces and the Japanese Red Army Faction, among others. The leader of the crew, and the most lethal of them all, is the beautiful blonde German, Annalise Shenker. In addition to the huge cash haul, the train is carrying five international VIPs and is rigged with enough weapons of mass destruction to ensure that no one does anything rash.

About halfway through the story shifts gears again, as we are introduced to several new characters, including an elderly German World War II veteran visiting the country where he was kept as a POW, an old heiress who spends her time travelling North America by rail, and a spunky 15 year old runaway, all of whom are boarding an ill-fated train for Montreal. This is where I started to roll my eyes a bit, as it started to feel like one of those corny old “Poseidon Adventure”  disaster movies where we are introduced to a variety of quirky characters before catastrophe brings them together. But it actually turned out to be very entertaining, as the heist team and a motley crew of clever amateurs devise tactics, improvise weapons and muster up the courage to fight the terrorists. The last 50 or 60 pages were particularly riveting, as the protagonists make their move against the terrorists, the terrorists make their move against the passengers and threaten to unleash mass terror, government forces make their move against both, and the train rolls toward a hellish climax in the remote northern Canadian wilderness.

I was very impressed by Christopher Hyde’s smooth story-telling and technical knowledge; he knows the layouts of trains, the workings of the rail system and Canadian geography in intricate detail, and makes them integral to the story. By novel’s end I felt like I’d ridden along with the passengers on their terrifying adventure and was totally absorbed. I also liked how the heroes of this story weren’t some all-powerful government agents, but ordinary people who realized that no one was going to save them and decided to take matters into their own hands—a good reminder in this age of learned helplessness and creeping totalitarianism. All in all, an outstanding thriller, up there with the best in the genre. This was my first book by Mr. Hyde, but it definitely won’t be the last.

Get a copy of Maxwell’s Train here.

Shadow Ops Exercise: Exfiltration

Shadow Ops Exercise: Exfiltration

The Scenario

Here is an interesting training exercise for Shadow Operatives to try. Imagine the following scenario: you have just completed a high-profile op—e.g. an assassination, heist, sabotage mission or prison break—and are now the highest priority target of local security forces. You must get safely away from the scene of the op and back to safe territory.

Imagine your scenario in detail and modify your exercise accordingly. For example, if your op was a prison break, you may have nothing but your prison clothes and some spare change with you; if it was a heist, you may have bags of loot to deal with; if it was an assassination, you may have weapons to dispose of and blood on your clothing; etc.

Exfiltration Plan

The first part of the exercise is devising a detailed exfiltration plan. Use maps to plan your route precisely, and scout out the route in advance. If you use online mapping sites or apps, do so anonymously. Acquire whatever supplies you may need: cash, clothing, food, shelter, phone, transportation, etc. Make sure these items are all untraceable to you, and cache them along your route if necessary. Note that in some scenarios, such as a prison break, you won’t have access to many of these resources, so you will have to improvise on the fly.

Rules of the Exercise

Define your exfiltration target: a designated safe house or rendezvous point in another city, region, state or country. Your goal is to get there with the resources you have, without making contact with any security forces, showing your ID to anyone or leaving a paper trail. If any policeman, security guard or soldier takes special notice of you, evade them or you’ve failed. If civilians accost you or dogs bark at you, evade them or you’ve failed. If you see anyone you know, evade them or you’ve failed. If anyone asks for your ID, evade them or you’ve failed. If you make contact with known family, friends or associates, you’ve failed. If you pay for anything with a debit card traceable to you, you’ve failed. If you make a phone call, use an app or a computer in a way that is traceable to you, you’ve failed.

Tactical Tips

Alter your appearance. Wear a face covering in public. Have a cover story ready to explain who you are and what you’re doing. Make acquaintances if necessary for assistance with transportation, money, food, lodging, etc., using your cover story to explain your situation.

Take alternate routes on your travels; avoid main roads, airports, bus and train stations and ports. Use back roads and trails, hop freight trains, hitch rides, “borrow” a car, motorcycle, bicycle or boat if necessary. When you cross into another state or country, avoid passing through border checkpoints; go overland, across water, by train or private aircraft.

Don’t bring a phone, or bring one that you purchased prepaid with cash. Don’t log in to any online account that is traceable to you. Use off-grid technology whenever possible; e.g. paper maps and compasses or GPS handheld devices instead of GPS-enabled phones for navigation.

Example Exercise: The Pasayten Exfiltration

Here’s a scenario and exfiltration plan that I’ve devised for my own training. This is a somewhat high-risk exercise as it entails going back and forth across the U.S.-Canadian border, but that makes it more realistic and better training.

Scenario: I have just completed a heist of a bitcoin wallet from a home in Lake Chelan, Washington. Unfortunately, I was caught on security cameras and may have left fingerprints. I wish to get out of the USA before I am identified and arrested, so I am activating my “Pasayten Exfiltration” emergency plan.

Exfiltration target: A road near the U.S. border in southern British Columbia, Canada. I am imagining that I have a contact in Canada who will pick me up on the road at a pre-arranged time and take me to a safe house. If I am not there at the designated time, I fail the exercise.

Resources: A backpack with supplies for 5 to 7 days in the wilderness. A thousand dollars in cash. A motorcycle not traceable to me. Paper maps, compass and handheld GPS.

Cover Story: I’m an off-road motorcyclist/backpacker headed for the Pasayten Wilderness. If I get accosted by authorities near the border, I will tell them that I thought I could hike across the border and register with the authorities in Canada. I will have nothing incriminating on my person, so at worst I would be facing a fine. If this happens, I will of course have failed the exercise.

Route: I will ride mostly backroads from Lake Chelan to Harts Pass for about 100 miles. From there I will hide the motorcycle and proceed on foot on the Pacific Crest Trail for 30 miles to the border. I will night-hike across the border, continuing about 7 miles into Manning Park. I will make my rendezvous there near Highway 3, then turn around and hike back across the border before dawn.

The Pasayten exfiltration route.

If I reach the rendezvous point in B.C. and return to the U.S. without problems with authorities or the other disqualifiers mentioned above I will consider the exercise a success.

A boundary marker at the Washington state-Canada border in the Pasayten. The 20-foot “slash” runs along the entire international boundary.
Another view of the border slash in central Washington.