Most of the novels in the 'Parker' series by Richard Stark (a pseudonym of Donald Westlake) are straight-up crime stories that follow Parker and a crew of professional thieves through the planning, execution, and aftermath of a big-dollar heist. However, the sixth installment of the series, “The Jugger” from 1971, is a very different kind of adventure for Parker: an actual mystery to be solved.
The mystery concerns an elderly colleague of Parker’s named Joe Sheer. Fans of the series will recognize the name because Sheer was a former “Jugger” (the underground parlance for a safecracker) who left his career behind for retirement. For several of the early installments in the series, Sheer serves as an answering service for Parker. If someone wants Parker to join a crew for an armed robbery, calling Sheer will get the message delivered.
After receiving an uncharacteristic and worrisome letter from Sheer indicating he was in trouble and needed help, Parker travels to Sheer’s adopted hometown only to learn that Sheer recently died of natural causes and was buried right before Parker’s arrival. For reasons mostly of self-preservation, Parker sets out to learn Sheer’s actual cause of death and the problems that prompted the letter sent to Parker.
Along the way, Parker encounters a police chief with an unprofessional interest in Sheer’s life as well as a fellow thief also investigating Sheer’s final days. Could there be a missing fortune to recover? Why would Sheer break normal protocols and send such a worried letter to Parker? What was Sheer’s actual cause of death?
The excellent website, “The Violent World Of Parker,” disclosed that “The Jugger” was Westlake’s least favorite installment in the series. This is where I part ways with the author. Although I wouldn’t recommend starting the series with this installment, I found the novel to be fascinating and the mysteries driving the plot forward were completely riveting. Bearing witness to one of my favorite anti-heroes in crime fiction shift gears and play detective was a fascinating change of pace.
Although the plot is completely unique within the series, the format of “The Jugger” remains true to the Stark formula. The action follows Parker through third-person narration until the Part Three flashback where the perspective changes and the motives of others are revealed to the reader. In this case, the payoff (i.e. solutions to the underlying mysteries) is outstanding.
If you’re considering skipping this one for fear that a mystery novel starring Parker may lack the visceral brutality of other volumes, rest assured that there is plenty of bloodshed for you to enjoy here. In fact, Parker’s solution to one of the book’s central puzzles concludes with an act of brutality so extreme and unexpected, it will stay with you for quite awhile. You’ll know what I mean as soon as you read it.
If you’re in the mood for a traditional heist novel, perhaps “The Jugger” isn’t the best choice. If, however, the idea of an exciting crime novel exploring the occupational hazards of being a criminal safecracker in retirement sounds interesting, you’ll probably enjoy this one as much as I did. It’s a shame Westlake didn’t like “The Jugger,” but he wrote it for you and me, not for himself. Highly recommended.