Several of the books had been by this writer Richard Stark, always about the same crook, named Parker. Robbery stories, big capers, armored cars, banks, all that sort of thing. And what Kelp really liked about the books was that Parker always got away with it. Robbery stories where the crooks didn’t get caught at the end–fantastic. For Kelp, it was like being an American Indian and going to a western movie where the cowboys lose. Wagon train wiped out, cavalry lost in the desert, settlement abandoned, ranchers and farmers driven back across the Mississippi. Grand.
From Jimmy the Kid, by Donald Westlake.
By late 1963, Westlake had published four novels about a professional heavy heister–not simply an armed robber, but a specialist, who typically works with a ‘string’ of fellow professionals, to commit institutional robbery–that is to say, stealing from organizations, private or public in nature. Banks, payrolls, businesses that have a lot of cash or valuables on hand, etc. He may sometimes steal from an individual, but it’s never his preferential option. He may work alone or with just one partner at times, but ditto.
He feels most comfortable in a group of about five skilled reliable people he already knows, scoping out the target, coming up with a solid plan (one of Parker’s two specialties), taking untraceable cash, making an agreed-upon split, and then going their separate ways, without any ‘civilians’ getting hurt along the way, because death ups the ante for law enforcement. And it never did quite work out that way, in any of the novels. But that was always the goal.
And yet we never see this kind of job in any detail before the fifth novel. There are maybe eight organized armed robberies depicted in the four previous books (depends on how you define it), most of them quite briefly. They are all more or less incidental to the main story in each book, and Parker is only involved in about half of them. In The Score, for the very first time, the growing readership for these books saw a job from beginning to end–the job itself is the story. The job, and the men who do it. And there’s a lot of them–twelve, in fact. Each of whom is a protagonist in his own right. It’s a real heist story, of a kind movie audiences were well familiar with from the past few decades, and particularly the 1950’s and 60’s, when the genre in its modern form began to really take hold in its own right.
Though if you wanted to trace it back all the way to its roots–well, isn’t the Argonautica basically a heist epic? If you look at what actually happens in it, it’s more amoral (or downright immoral) than anything from 20th century Hollywood (including the Ray Harryhausen adaptation of the Argonautica). Jason steals the Golden Fleece from people who never harmed him, killing hundreds (maybe thousands) of people along the way, with the help of his legendary band of heroic thieves, with the gods basically serving as backers for the whole operation.
In the latter part of the myth, he abandons the woman who gave up everything for him (without whom he could never have gotten the Fleece), leading to famously horrific consequences, but he still gets his son on the throne, lives to what was then considered a pretty good age, and dies in his sleep, crushed by a timber that falls off his rotting ship. We’re told this was the punishment of the gods for Jason violating his oath to love Medea forever, but hey–how many 20th Century noir heroes ever got off that easy?
People all over the world have always enjoyed a story about a group of talented individuals getting together to take something that doesn’t belong to them. Basically ever since people started telling each other stories. How that story ends tells you a lot about the culture that produces it. In America, the story usually ends with the robbers getting caught, or killed, or losing the money, or else they were stealing from bad people so it was never really stealing (that last variation is increasingly dominant at the movies these days). Cecil B. DeMille said American audiences like to see sinful doings, but then they want the sinners punished at the end, so they (the audience) may be purged of vicarious guilt. C.B. knew what he was talking about.
In France, the heist story usually ends the same way, but somehow not for quite the same reasons–it’s more of an existentialist thing–we’re all guilty of the crime of being born, or something like that. In Italy and the UK, the story usually ends comically, showing us the absurdity of the participants (whose absurdity we share in), but again we see the thieves get their comeuppance somehow. They never just walk happily off into the sunset with the loot, unless they’re taking it from other criminals. There’s always a catch somewhere.
These approaches all have their merits. But there is another alternative–suppose the thieves just go in and take what they want from legitimate non-criminal enterprises, and get away clean, and spend the money, and live to steal again? Maybe take a casualty or two, some things go wrong along the way, courtesy of Murphy’s Law, but they deal with the complications, and come out the other end richer for the effort. Someday they’ll die, but someday everybody dies. How long they live will depend in part on how smart, intrepid, and careful they are, as well as on luck. Just desserts have nothing to do with anything.
And they are actually enjoying their work, mind you–doing it not as some kind of get-rich-quick scheme, something they’re going to try once and then retire to South America or wherever–habitual offenders, not dabblers. And not doing this because they were forced into it somehow–a time-tested moral escape hatch in the movies–but because it’s what they do, who they are, how they want to live.
How would that be? Wouldn’t you like to know? Well, read The Score (you should anyway, before you read this spoiler-laden review). And possibly some earlier books, but I don’t really know any earlier ones to recommend to you. They may exist, but I haven’t read them. Or heard of them. And forget about the movies.
I shouldn’t forget about The Man With the Getaway Face, which did show a rather small scale payroll heist, and while two of the four participants end up dead, Parker and Handy get away clean with more money than they’d have had if one of the other two hadn’t tried a doublecross. Parker steals money that was intended to pay honest hardworking people, murders without the slightest qualm a female accomplice who was going to take it all for herself, and if there’s a moral to the story at all, it sure isn’t “crime does not pay.”
In many ways, The Score is simply expanding and elaborating on that section of the earlier book, but The Man With the Getaway Face is more about what comes before and after the heist than the heist itself. It ends with Parker inadvertently performing what might be called a good deed, by killing a guy who was a much bigger crook than he and his confederates could ever possibly be–rough justice, but still justice. We’re not 100% of the way there yet.
In The Score, there’s no moral escape hatch. We’re in on this job with Parker & Co., fully implicated in their crime, and rooting like hell for them to succeed. They may not all make it, but neither will some decent law-abiding people in the story who don’t remotely deserve the fate awaiting them. There is no justice here. There is only what you do and what you fail to do. There’s life and death and what comes in-between, and how you deal with all that. Nothing else. The only values Richard Stark holds dear are professionalism, individualism, and self-understanding. The rest is negotiable. Donald Westlake may not feel quite the same way about it, but Westlake isn’t in the driver’s seat here.
This book opens in Jersey City, with Parker headed for a meeting about a job–after two introductory chapters, there’s a relatively brief flashback that could just as easily be left out, except it shows us a rare glimpse of Parker in non-working mode, at a Florida resort hotel, getting ogled by bikini-clad girls, and wishing he was on a job again, only six months after he finally got everything squared away with Mal Resnick, The Outfit, and Bett Harrow. And he can’t just relax and enjoy it. He could basically just point at one of those good-looking secretaries on vacation and she’d toss him her room keys–and he’s bored, restless. His cyclical sex drive has petered out again.
You’d think after a year or so like the one he just had (that started with his wife shooting him), he’d want at least a year or so off. And you’d think he could afford it, after nabbing what in today’s money would well over $700,000. Yes, he’s living in a luxury hotel, he’s eating in fancy restaurants, he’s wearing tailored suits, and he’s a really good tipper (Parker has learned that it pays to schmooze the help) but his lifestyle is pretty spartan for all that, and he doesn’t want to own anything. We’re told that he’s only got 17 grand left. Which is more than the average working slob back then made in three years, but Parker figures he’s got enough for a few more months.
I remember one interview in which Westlake said he’d love to ask Parker what he did with all that money–the only answer that presents itself to me is that Parker can’t live without working, which for him can only mean heisting, so he spends the money faster than he has to, so he’ll have an excuse to work again. He has to find a balance between taking enough jobs to satisfy this need, but not so many that he ends up in prison (which would destroy him).
In The Hunter, we were told that he worked once a year on average, but that was when he had Lynn. Without her, he’s restless, unrooted, and needs to work more. He’ll have to do something about this eventually, but for the moment he’s going to tell himself his reserve fund is too low, not ask himself how he managed to blow through almost a hundred thousand dollars in a few months, and go to Jersey City to talk to some men about a potential job.
The finger on this job is a guy named Edgars, who has hooked up with Paulus, a safecracker Parker knows, who is solid at his specialty, but a jumpy paranoid wreck otherwise. Paulus has also called in Dan Wycza, a sometime-wrestler, and Alan Grofield, a most-of-the-time actor. We’re going to be seeing Dan on and off throughout the series, and Grofield is going to be Richard Stark’s other franchise boy for a while–the supporting cast is really shaping up.
What Wycza and Grofield have in common is that heisting is a means of financing their other lives–Dan is a fitness nut, as well as a pro wrestler. Grofield got into heisting when the theater company he was a part of ran out of money, and they decided to knock over a supermarket. Parker considers them solid pros, but they are very very different from him, and from Handy McKay, who tells Parker to count him out of this job–he really is retired this time. Which serves to remind us of what’s come before, while telling us we’re going in a new direction. The first cycle of the Parker saga, that centered around his trouble with The Outfit, has concluded. This is the transitional book.
Edgars breaks out a slide projector, and shows them shots of Copper Canyon, a small mining town in North Dakota. It takes them a few minutes to realize what he’s proposing–that they rob every major enterprise in town, the banks, the mining payroll, jewelry stores, everything, all in one night, taking over the police station and the telephone switchboard in the process–he figures they’ll get over a quarter of a million dollars. He also figures they’ll need maybe thirty men. There’s only one road out of the town, which is surrounded on three sides by high cliffs. If anything goes wrong, they could be trapped in there. And there’s a state trooper station right outside the town limits.
Parker smells trouble all over Edgars and his crazy scheme, but the professional in him is intrigued by the challenge. He says they wouldn’t need half that many guys to keep a lid on this sleepy little burg in the middle of the night. He finally settles on twelve–enough to do the job, cover all the bases; few enough for everyone to get a decent split and avoid the kind of over-complexity that dooms a job. Also a rather disturbing gospel reference, presumably unintended on his part, if not Stark’s.
They start reaching out to various professional acquaintances (including our old friend Salsa from The Outfit), financing the job via a doctor in New York, buying guns from the usual unsavory people–also cars, walkie-talkies, and other equipment–and firming up the plan with a bit of advance scouting, done under the pretense of selling insurance (which comes up so often in Westlake’s novels and short stories, I have to figure he actually did sell insurance for a while). It must be said that in this genre, the preliminaries can be as much fun as the main event. And particularly when Richard Stark is spinning the yarn.
It turns out Edgars has been shacked up with a good-looking 30-ish blonde named Jean–a very different kind of blonde than Bett Harrow–a New York girl, short, stacked, working class, a bit prone to theatrics. Edgars wants her to come along, because he’s worried she’ll find another boyfriend. Parker says forget it–eventually, it’s arranged for her to wait for them in Thief River Falls Minnesota, which is a real place (unlike Copper Canyon).
Jean takes an immediate disliking to Parker, calling him ‘Ugly’, and of course tries to get him in bed maybe 20 minutes after they first meet. He says maybe after the job is done. He does not say this in front of Edgars. He doesn’t know if he means it or not. It’s not really that important at the moment, but he will need a woman afterwards. In the privacy of his mind he calls Jean a tramp, which seems a mite judgmental for him–and Stark–is Westlake still working through some issues with womankind here? Perhaps, but in spite of her flaws (or because of them) Jean is the most likable woman Parker has met to date in the novels. The competition is admittedly not fierce thus far. It gets better.
They get set up in an abandoned mining camp outside town, which will serve as their hideout for a few days after the heist. One by one, we get to know a bit about each of the 12 participants–except Edgars, who is hiding something from his colleagues (and the reader). They are all quirky freewheeling individuals, some more professional than others, and Parker has his work cut out for him getting them to function together as a unit, but morale is good overall. It’s a decent string. Parker is pleased. But there’s still something about Edgars……
The operation itself takes place within in Part 3 of the book, which runs from page 79 through 125 in the first edition paperback. It’s a small marvel of impeccably choreographed storytelling: constantly switching perspectives–we begin with the two police officers in their prowl car, who get called back to their station by a nervous-sounding dispatcher–only to find that he’s nervous because he’s got a whole lot of guns pointed at him. Parker, the organizer, troubleshooter, and (if the need arises) enforcer, will take their place for a few hours–he’s going to be riding around in the police car, wearing a mask, looking for problems–and that’s an image that sticks with you a long time.
All the main points of authority, the police station, the firehouse, the switchboard, will be taken over and run by thieves. Small town Middle America, living under a self-imposed curfew (that makes Parker’s life so much easier), has been turned on its head–Copper Canyon is under heister law, and only a handful of the locals even know about it. Most are peacefully sleeping, though Stark says a few are reading, having sex, occupied with their own lives, while all the while Parker & Co. are opening safes, and carting everything of value in Copper Canyon into a waiting Mack Truck. Even the radio station is shut down (and there’s no mention of television). For a few hours, everything stops. Everything but the thievery.
One beautiful little vignette involves a 19 year old named Eddie who was having an enjoyable night of sex with his girlfriend Betty in her own bed while her parents are out of town. He doesn’t want his parents to know about this, and he and Betty took a post-coital nap that lasted well past curfew. She wants him to stay, but he feels like he has to sneak back home–and along the way, he sees the bank being robbed. He does what any good citizen would do–he calls the cops from a phone booth. They tell him to stay where he is. Parker comes around in the prowl car and picks him up. Eddie can’t believe it. Parker leaves him bound and gagged in an alleyway, catching a cold, and wondering why the hell he didn’t just stay warm in bed with his girl. He’s asking himself, why did he care if his parents knew? Because he’s not ready to think of himself as an adult yet, even though he’s acting like one.
I will say, this is one of the few times the movies improved on a Parker novel–in Alain Cavalier’s adaptation, Mise a Sac, which switches the action to rural France, the poor kid (whose girlfriend is beautiful, and French, so maybe more to be envied than pitied?) ends up in the town jail, looking truly confused. There’s a good reason why Westlake didn’t write it like that, but Cavalier picks up perfectly on what the story is really about here–subversion of social authority–you only have to take over a few key positions in a town like this to control it. Then the crooks can put the honest citizens behind bars if they want–it’s topsy-turvy, a criminal Walpurgisnacht. And then it all falls apart.
We get the warning from one of the bound-and-gagged cops when he recognizes Edgars’ voice–as we finally get into Edgars’ head, we learn the story Parker should have uncovered, but didn’t–probably because he wanted to work this job so much, he didn’t listen to the alarm bells in his head. Edgars was the Chief of Police there–a corrupt brutal one, who was fired and run out of town.
What irks him the most is that they didn’t have anything solid on him–so even though he was guilty as sin, firing him without proof of wrongdoing was breaking the rules, hypocritical, unfair. Very reminiscent of Clay’s anger at society in The Mercenaries, when everyone assumed he was guilty of a hit&run–which he was, but they didn’t prove it. When I see Westlake returning to a theme like that again and again, I know it has to be coming from somewhere inside of him. This is an emotion he personally has felt. Let’s stick a pin in that, and move on.
Edgars swore he’d get even, and for him, getting even means not just robbing Copper Canyon blind, but destroying it utterly, leaving its smug city fathers alive to survey the ruins. He knew Parker and the others wouldn’t go along if he told them this, but he figures once it’s already happening, they’ll help him finish the job, because they don’t have any other choice. Yeah. He’s nuts. That can happen when you take a man’s whole identity away from him–Edgars doesn’t know how to be a decent crook, but he can’t be a cop anymore, even a crooked one, so his energies turn inwards–he becomes his own opposite. It’s driven him over the edge. And he takes a lot of people with him, starting with the policemen left in his care, who he guns down without mercy.
It escalates quickly–he’s gotten some confiscated hand grenades from a storage room at the station house, and he uses one to blow the station house up–then on to the firehouse, where he shoots one of his fellow heisters, Chambers, a Kentucky redneck, who ironically enough was just hoping the firemen he was guarding would give him an excuse to kill them–but he still won’t just let Edgars gun them down in cold blood–maybe he gets a few years off his stretch in Purgatory for that? Sorry, the Catholic in us Irish boys dies hard.
Boom goes the firehouse. Edgars then heads for the gas station, with convenient above-ground tanks, which he’s going to use to set the whole town on fire–Parker and Wycza have caught up with him by now, and are probably about to kill him, but they never get the chance–he blows himself up. Copper Canyon is burning. The job is soured. The whole crew gets out of town in a hurry, with most of the money they were after. The state troopers, headquartered right outside town, drive right past them without even stopping. Parker is pissed. And he doesn’t even know about Grofield’s girl yet.
Grofield was at the telephone switchboard, and unfortunately or not, depending on how you look at it, the girl they left untied to handle any late-night calls, named Mary Deegan, was very attractive–no physical description of her, but you just assume she’s got to be. She immediately hit it off with Grofield. He took his mask off (among other things), and she’s seen his face (among other things). Not the last time Grofield will mix business with pleasure–he’s no Parker.
Mary wants to go along with Grofield–nay, she insists. She wants out of this dead end town. She’s ready to try being somebody other than a switchboard girl. She doesn’t quite threaten to provide the police with a physical description of Grofield, but she reminds him she can. The sex must have been really good, because Grofield finally agrees. When he shows up at the Mack Truck with her, Wycza blows a gasket, but there’s no time to argue, so she blows town with them, sitting in Grofield’s lap. It’s been an interesting night.
So back at the hideout, things are, shall we say, tense. Thanks to Edgars, the police are looking not just for thieves, but cop-killing, fireman-slaughtering, town-burning maniacs. Helicopters are passing overhead, but they have the automotive transport well-concealed. Paulus is about ready to bolt. And thanks to Grofield not being able to stop being–Grofield–they have in their midst a young female ‘hostage’ whose uncle is one of the dead firemen. And now she’s seen all their faces. Parker takes Grofield aside, and tells him where he can bury Mary’s body. It isn’t a suggestion.
Grofield is capable of quite a lot of things, but killing a woman probably isn’t one of them. He and Parker have a tense little discussion, that ends with Parker asking to see Mary alone. He’s got to know.
She looked up and studied his face in the matchlight, and when it was dark again she said, “The simplest thing would just be to throw me off the cliff here, wouldn’t it?”
“Why don’t you? You’re not afraid of Grofield.”
“I don’t kill as the easy way out of something. If I kill, it’s because I don’t have any choice.”
“You mean self-defense.”
“Wrong. I mean it’s the only way to get what I want.”
In spite of himself, Parker is impressed with her. She knows exactly what she wants. It wasn’t just a random impulse she’ll later regret. She’s sorry her uncle is dead, but that cuts her last tie to Copper Canyon. She’d been planning her escape for a while, and Grofield showed up at the right time. She doesn’t know if they’ll stay together, and she doesn’t care. She wants the new life he can show to her–the theater, travel, big cities–a whole new identity. She wants Mary Deegan dead as much as Parker does. This is something she’s doing for herself, but she can also stabilize Grofield, maybe keep him out of jail, force him to do boring bourgeois things his artist’s soul is repulsed by, like filling out imaginative tax returns to justify his illicit income. That way Parker can go on working with him in the future. That’s well and good, but it isn’t the main reason he lets her convince him. Parker can understand her motives for doing what she did. They make sense to him. She can live.
In the meantime, Paulus is about to die–Edgars’ deception has confirmed his most paranoid instincts, the circling helicopters doing their grid searches have unnerved him completely, and the calm professional in him collapses, replaced by a panic-stricken amateur. He wants to leave, with his split of the take, now, while the roadblocks are still up. The others can’t let him do this, so he sneaks out and does it anyway–Parker, Wycza, and Salsa block his car on a narrow cliffside road, and losing his last solitary shred of self-composure, he goes off the edge–taking his share with him. Salsa finds this oddly fitting.
There’s plenty left to split between them–a bit over 30k per man. They give a few hundred to Grofield and Mary as a joke wedding gift (which turns out to be prophetic). Pop Phillips, the most respectable-looking of them, checks to see if it’s safe to leave–when he comes back and gives the all clear, they pack up their vehicles and head out. They robbed an entire town, inadvertently leading to its near-total destruction, and the death of uniformed personnel–and they’re just going to drive away from it. Pity some folks got hurt, but that’s nothing to do with them. They were just doing their jobs. Shit happens.
Parker’s only problem with the job was how messy it got. He was exceptionally satisfied with it, otherwise–it seems to have touched some primal aesthetic sense within him. It was a beautiful job, a perfect plan, marred only by one man’s madness. And that madman has failed, because you can’t kill a town with a viable source of income–namely a working mine–the burned sections of Copper Canyon will be rebuilt (a good excuse for urban renewal), and people will gradually stop thinking about it. They will never know Edgars was the man behind it. Because his body was burned to ashes. Nothing left of him.
Back at Thief River Falls, Parker pulls one last posthumous heist–he tells Jean about Edgars. She isn’t what you’d call grief-stricken, but she is moved to to ponder the tragicomic trajectory of her life to date.
She shook her head, a sour grin on her face. “I pick ’em, don’t I? Tell me, Parker, what’s wrong with you.”
“There’s nothing wrong with me.”
“There’s got to be something, Parker, or I wouldn’t pick you.”
“You didn’t pick me. Get another glass.”
“Oh, don’t act so goddam tough. Where are you going from here?”
“Drive to Chicago, take a plane to Miami. You like Miami?”
“How the hell do I know? This is the furthest I’ve ever been from New York in my life.”
Jean doesn’t really know who she is, what she wants, but if Parker has any ideas, if he’ll just treat her like a person, she’s game. Maybe she’ll turn into a butterfly. How would she know? He wonders just a moment what it would be like to have someone like Mary–someone more self-possessed. Someone who would know. Where do you find something like that? But this is what he’s got for now. And she’ll do just fine. For now. He removes her chrysalis. The windows are wide open. The story is over.
What was it all about? All that death and madness and sex and plunder, interspersed with a few moments of self-discovery and introspection. It’s a great story–one of the best I’ve ever read, in any genre or none–but was there any point to it at all? Maybe Grofield, who we will be seeing again in the near future (Mary a bit further off into the future), has a clue for us.
Earlier in the book, before the heist, when the whole gang is chilling at the hideout, waiting for the curtain to rise, we’re told that Grofield is off in a corner, reciting both parts from Henry IV, Part 1, Act 1, Scene 2. I can’t be the first Stark reader who was ever moved to look that up, but I can’t find any other review that mentions it–it’s not in the Cavalier film (in which ‘Grofield’ isn’t an actor) or in Darwyn Cooke’s graphic novel adaptation. You can read the whole thing here–but if you can’t take your Elizabethan straight, try this.
Lord, what fools we mortals be. But while we may all be crazy, some are decidedly more so than others, and in our next book, Donald Westlake (back to his old self again, writing for Random House), is going to try and see just how crazy crazy can get.