Purely interesting. That’s what Donald Westlake said about Peter Rabe’s fifth novel, published in 1956. I guess that’s accurate, but I don’t really know what it means. Appealing to the intellect, but not the emotions?
Westlake also describes Rabe’s style as follows: “The coolness is there, the smooth surface that never directly refers to the emotions squirming away underneath.” That’s almost exactly the same strategy he followed in his own Parker novels—a series that began with The Hunter in 1962.
Kill the Boss Good-by tells the story of a rivalry between two gangsters—the old boss, Tom Fell, and the would-be new boss, Pander. You can tell from the reference to Pander’s “fancy suspenders” on the back cover, that he’s not the one we’ll be pulling for. What’s interesting about this ultra-simple plot structure is that Rabe has added a “what-if…” In this case it’s: What if Fell is so emotionally unstable, he’s been in a mental hospital for shock treatment. How will he manage his business now that his brain function has become unpredictable?
Kind of a wild idea. (Rabe had a PhD in psychology). But when you think about it, this is the same premise that kept The Sopranos rolling: What if the crime boss is seeing a psychotherapist for anxiety attacks?
Kill the Boss is a very minutely observed account of Fell’s gradual progression into a full-fledged maniac. It is interesting, but it’s also quite slow. For me, Parker’s character is a lot more appealing than Fell’s. Parker is a lone wolf fighting against the united power of the mob—organized crime—using his wits, iron determination, and unparalleled chutzpah. Fell is an insider; he has some of Tony Soprano’s sociopathic charm, but lacks the humor.
The funniest moment in Kill the Boss occurs when Fell braces the police commissioner while he is in the athletic club, taking a steam bath in one of those closet-like contraptions where only the person’s head sticks out of a hole cut in the top. Those were a staple of the Saturday morning cartoons and it was nice to be reminded of them again after so many years.
I love the cover illustration by Barye Phillips.