Parker lay in the dark in his hotel-room bed and waited to be contacted. Lying there, he looked like a machine not yet turned on. He was thinking about nothing; his nerves were still.
When the knock sounded at the door, he got up and walked over and switched on the light because he knew most people thought it strange when somebody lay waiting in the dark. Then he opened the door and there was a woman standing there, which he hadn’t expected. She was tall and slender and self-possessed, with the face and figure of a fashion model, very remote and cool. She said, “Mr. Lynch?”
That was the name he was using here, but he said, “You sure this is the room you want?”
One of the very first things we ever learn about Parker is that his sex drive doesn’t function normally. During a job, he doesn’t seem to have any interest at all, though he’s marginally aware of certain women as potential future hook-ups. Right after a job, he’s insatiable, and must find a willing partner, which is rarely difficult for him. A few months later, he’s mainly lost interest again, until his next heist. If the woman he’s with doesn’t like it, tough.
Before we first met him, he was married (legally?) to a woman named Lynn, who was part of the same criminal world Parker inhabited, though not a professional heister. We’re told he was in love with her, though we don’t really find out what that meant for him, other than that he was faithful to her. Their sex life went on hiatus once his cycle was in its waning phase, though–which was difficult for her to live with, but she apparently considered Parker worth the wait. Finally, her life threatened by Mal Resnick, her nerve broke–at Mal’s prompting, she shot Parker and left him for dead.
But he wasn’t, of course, and he came after Lynn. His old feelings for her were still there (not that he’d admit that to anyone but himself), but the trust he’d once felt towards her was permanently shattered–she was in a very bad mental state when he found her, and the narrator tells us Parker was afraid of her–the first and last time we’re told Parker is afraid of anybody.
He spoke to and of her with a harshness and venom we never saw from him again, but he couldn’t actually bring himself to kill her. When she committed suicide out of despair at his seeming indifference, he was relieved, and dumped her body in Central Park, mutilating her face so Resnick wouldn’t be tipped to his return by the newspapers. He rarely thought of her afterwards.
It’s not exactly the classic American love story, is it? Even by the standards of French noir, that’s pretty damn cold.
After Lynn dies, Parker decides he won’t let himself get involved with a woman that way ever again. Not long-term. It fits in with his professional dictum that emotional attachments of any type blind you, weigh you down, make you vulnerable (well, that’s true, isn’t it?). Lynn was an aberration, a mistake. He won’t let himself be open to anyone that way again. He’ll find women when he needs them, then walk away once the need subsides.
In the first few books, he lives that way, but it’s a hassle–one of the women he ends up with is a spoiled heiress named Bett Harrow, a treacherous blonde beauty, who manipulates him into doing a job for her father, and can’t be trusted on any level. It’s not so easy to find someone worth spending time with who doesn’t have issues of one kind of another, that end up complicating your life. He walks away from her without a backward glance.
He lives with a blonde named Jean for a while, after the events of The Score, but in the subsequent book, when he has to make sure this other blonde named Rhonda doesn’t talk to the law about him, he’s ready to dump Jean, who he’s already getting tired of, and make Rhonda his new maîtresse-en-titre–only to learn Jean left during his absence–he never wonders what happened to her. Still, he’s already starting to think in terms of finding something steadier–he admires Mary Deegan, the woman Grofield hooked up with in The Score, and wonders what it would be like being with someone who knew what she wanted–a partnership. He didn’t have that with Lynn.
He really seemed to go for a taciturn bohemian brunette named Ellie Canaday that he met in The Seventh, but she was murdered a few days after they got together sexually. There is, I think, a strong implication that they were in the early stages of forming a lasting bond, and that he’s angry and frustrated about the way she was killed by a jilted ex-lover before that process could be completed–but if he feels any sense of personal loss over her death, he covers it well.
His next connection is with a professional named Crystal (yet another blonde) working for The Outfit, who likes Parker, but isn’t looking for anything permanent. He notes, to his surprise, that his sexual pattern is more flexible than he thought–even though he’s technically working with her, casing a casino The Outfit wants him to knock over, he still wants her. Once he’s actively planning the job, the old pattern reasserts itself, and she ends up spending time with Grofield–no feathers ruffled on either side. Just business, mixed with pleasure.
As The Rare Coin Score begins, Parker is finally back where he thought he wanted to be. He’s got plenty of money, nobody’s after him, and he can take a good long break before his next job. And he’s restless, dissatisfied, out of kilter. He’s living a life right out of the pages of Playboy–endless sex, travel, excitement, recreation, no obligations of any kind, to anybody. It’s what all men are supposed to really want, and judging by what we read in the entertainment press, it’s not a life free-spirited humans of either gender tire of easily, when it’s actually an option. Eventually, sure–but not after a few weeks.
His life is aimless now–even the opening of the book tells us this–and breaks with the tradition of the previous eight novels, in that it does not begin with the usual “When such and such happened, Parker did something.” We won’t see that opening again for a long time, but this is more than just a shift in style–
Parker spent two weeks on the white sand beach at Biloxi, and on a white sandy bitch named Belle, but he was restless, and one day without thinking about it he checked out and sent a forwarding address to Handy McKay and moved on to New Orleans. He took a room in a downtown motel and connected with a girl folk singer the first night, but all she did was complain about how her manager was lousing up her career, so three days later he ditched her and took up with a Bourbon Street stripper instead.
Parker always has a purpose of some kind when the story opens, but not here. And he keeps moving around from one place to another, one woman after another. To Parker, it’s so intolerable that he wanders through a rough New Orleans neighborhood until two unfortunate derelicts try to mug him for his shoes–he realizes he’s deliberately prolonging the fight–that he was looking for trouble, just to alleviate his boredom–disgusted with himself, he finishes the two bums off, and moves on again, to Vegas, and then San Diego.
He gets a call there from Handy McKay, still running his diner in Maine, and serving as Parker’s ‘mailbox’ in place of the now-deceased Joe Sheer–there’s a potential job. Not even knowing what the job is, Parker tells the attractive divorcee he was about to bed that she needs to go now. Immediately his mind flips back into work-mode, and he feels at ease with himself. He knows this is stupid–that if he has to keep working all the time to keep from jumping out of his own skin, he’s drastically increasing his chances of being caught or killed. But he needs to work. He checks into a predesignated hotel in Indianapolis, and waits for someone to contact him.
That someone is Claire, who will be Parker’s steady girlfriend for the remaining 15 novels. We never learn her real last name. She was married to an airline pilot named Ed, who died in a crash. Nobody calls her anything but Claire. At the end of the book, on Parker’s instructions, she checks into a hotel under the name Claire Carroll, but it’s not at all clear that was her maiden or married name. For most of the series, she goes by Claire Willis–she took Parker’s old alias that he stopped using after The Jugger, more or less as a joke–that Parker doesn’t find particularly funny.
Her physical description is intriguing and brief–tall, slender, the face and body of a model (which leaves a lot to the imagination). Hair color–unknown. Eye color–unknown. Ethnicity–unknown–but we’re told she goes chalk-white with shock later in the book, so she’s fair-skinned. If she has any family other than her late husband’s relatives, we never hear about it. Her general physical attributes, aside from the fact that she’s tall and slender–never mentioned. The Robert McGinnis cover art for the Gold Medal first edition paperback shows us a woman with very dark bobbed hair, dark eyes, her face partly hidden, her expression ambiguous–his artwork for the cover of the next book also makes her a brunette.
But later covers and illustrations (including one from McGinnis) have depicted her as a blonde, or a redhead, or just a lighter brunette. The height of absurdity was probably reached when the four Parker novels published by Gold Medal were reprinted one after the other in a magazine called For Men Only, with alternate titles you have to see to believe, and we still have those types of magazines today, so no need to explain what they were most interested in–but take a look–
(You can imagine Westlake reading the captions and wincing slightly–back to the softcore porn pits, if only by proxy–oh well, a check is a check).
Blonde in The Rare Coin Score (sorry, I meant The Naked Plunderers), brunette in The Green Eagle Score (you don’t want to know what they called that one), and I guess The Black Ice Score was the rubber match, but it didn’t really settle anything–hell, she was blonde and brunette in the second one). And believe it or not, these aren’t anywhere near the worst illustrations–you can see the rest over at the Official Westlake Blog.
I’m only bringing up this rather embarrassing episode in Westlake’s career to show there was no consensus, even within the pages of a half-witted men’s magazine, as to what Claire looked like. If she was blonde more often than brunette, that’s got nothing to do with anything in the books. That’s just the typical bias we see in books, magazines, films, TV, etc. Blondes may not always have more fun, but they definitely get more ink.
Westlake himself went into no greater detail about Claire’s appearance until the final trilogy of novels that ended up being the defacto conclusion to the series–in the first of which (Nobody Runs Forever), she’s got auburn hair–but in the last (Dirty Money), which takes place only a few weeks later, she’s ash-blonde. There’s no mention of her having been to the hair-dresser. I have to believe this was intentional on Westlake’s part. The vagueness of her description across most of the series, I mean. Not the switch from auburn to blonde at the end–that I can’t explain. Maybe he just forgot.
What does your ideal mate look like? Not the same as everyone else’s, that’s for sure–and probably even your personal ideal changes over time, in response to the people you meet, the movies you see, the books you read. Ideals are hazy, by their nature–and flexible. They’d better be, if you want to actually find someone in reality.
As I’ve mentioned elsewhere, the female love interest is an important factor in most of Westlake’s novels. It’s part of the genre he writes in, and it’s also something he’s keenly interested in, being an inveterate girl watcher, who as his third wife humorously remarked, was obsessed with sex (though really, the fact that he had a third wife could tell you that).
But he was almost always very specific in his physical descriptions of these women–they had distinct appearances, personalities, interests. Some of them were idiosyncratic and unique, others more like standard male fantasies, but even then they were specific standard male fantasies. Brunettes, blondes, the occasional redhead, and sometimes they were black, or Latina, or some other ethnicity. They came in all heights, all shapes, all colors. A beautiful woman is more than the sum of her parts–and there’s nothing in the world more subjective than beauty. You see it or you don’t. A true admirer of women will see it everywhere. Because it’s really about what’s emanating from inside (though the wrappings sure don’t hurt).
To me, Claire will always look like the woman on those first two McGinnis covers. It seems unlikely to me that Westlake originally thought of her as a blonde, because a woman being blonde is something you always mention in this genre. McGinnis may have given her dark hair on those first two covers because the book itself offered no clues, and because he also assumed that if you don’t mention a Caucasian woman being blonde or redheaded, she’s a brunette–that’s the default option. But perhaps also because we know Parker has dark hair, and the novel depicts her as somehow a female counterpart to Parker, and McGinnis wanted to depict that for all their differences, these are two of a kind. Parker has met his match.
There could be some other reason for her description being so vague. I can think of several. And it really doesn’t matter, because whatever the original motivation, the final result is that Claire is an ideal. She represents something you dream of, and never quite exactly find in reality–but Parker isn’t you. What Parker needs, Parker gets. And only what he needs. If he doesn’t get it, he didn’t need it.
And what he needs now is someone to stabilize him, before he burns himself out. A wolf in human form, which is how I see Parker, only needs one mate–who he will be faithful to unto death. Wolves are very nearly the only natural monogamists among mammals–primates, not so much. Which isn’t to say monogamy isn’t an important part of human society, but it’s a learned habit–a necessary social adaptation, that has always clashed with our natural instincts.
When it comes to sex, as with so many other things, we’re divided against ourselves–wanting many, and yearning to find the one who can make us forget the many. Because life with a variety of partners may sound alluring, but the reality for those of us who aren’t Arab Oil Sheiks is more typically stressful, disruptive, confusing, and (oddly enough) lonely. Also dangerous. Let’s not leave that out. Gay people didn’t push so hard for marriage rights on a whim.
The Rare Coin Score is unique among the Parker novels in that the central focus of its story is about Parker making a lasting connection with another person. It’s actually unique among all of Westlake’s novels up to that point, unless you count a few of the sex books he wrote under pseudonyms. Yes, many of the books he wrote under his own name have important romantic subplots, notably some of the ‘Nephew’ books, but those are entirely from the point of view of the male protagonist, and are really stories of self-discovery–which for a guy, can include discovering what kind of girl you’d like to spend the rest of your life with. But it’s about the guy reaching this conclusion. Not the girl. She’s usually way ahead of him there.
This time, we’re going to see things from the girl’s POV as well, and we’re going to learn why both of them make the rather unconventional choice to stay together–to form a partnership. And never get married. Or raise a family. Whether they chose to remain childless or it just worked out that way is never brought up. Given Parker’s lifestyle, and Claire’s undomesticated nature, it would be an understandable (and correct) choice.
But neither of them ever seems to give the matter any thought. Life for both of them is something to be lived a day at a time, though not in exactly the same way. Of course, we know the real reason they never have any kids is that it would overcomplicate the heists. And speaking of heists, let’s get back to the novel. This is going to be another of my two-parters, but you knew that already, right? Too much to cover in just one article.
This is the first heist we see Parker pull in a city that actually exists. Namely Indianapolis–Westlake describes it in a fair bit of detail, and I would assume he was actually there at some point, perhaps for a writer’s convention. That would make sense, since the target of this heist is a coin collector’s convention, at the very hotel Parker is staying at. Parker doesn’t much like Indianapolis, but he doesn’t much like cities in general. Too many people. But that’s where the money is.
He was contacted by Lempke, an old associate of Parker’s, in his mid-50’s, just released from prison, and Parker can’t believe Lempke would be so stupid and sloppy–you don’t talk about a heist in the same city you’re going to pull it in, let alone pull it in a hotel you stayed at.
He’s also bothered by them sending a woman to pick him up. In Parker’s experience, women aren’t part of The Profession. He mentions this to Claire, who gets in her first memorable line–“It doesn’t sound like a very rewarding profession.” Parker actually laughs out loud–he never forgets that line–not many people ever get the better of him in an exchange.
Claire is–different. For one thing, as he learns later on, this whole job is her idea. She wants a lot of money–seventy thousand dollars. A relative by marriage, the aptly named Billy Lebatard, is a coin collector and dealer, and has previously several times colluded with armed robbers to rip off dealers he knows slightly, for a share of the proceeds.
Billy is a strangely familiar figure to find in a story like this–orphaned at an early age, hopelessly inept at any type of social activity that isn’t directly related to his hobby/profession. He’s bespectacled, overweight, timid; quite certainly a virgin. If you’ve been to just about any kind of fan convention, you’ve met this guy (Comic-Con, I fondly imagine, is thousands of these guys milling around in costume). If you’ve discussed genre stuff on the internet, you’ve virtually met this guy. One way or another, everybody has met this guy. And many of us, to a greater or (hopefully) lesser extent, have been this guy.
Claire is roughly a million light years out of Billy’s league, but he wants her anyway, more than he’s ever wanted anything. She wants no part of him, but with no resources (just debts her late husband left her), and not eager to try the marriage market again, she listens when he brags about how much money he can get. When she finds out his actual resources fall far below her needs, and knowing he’s already done some really nasty things to perfectly innocent people, she decides to let him think that if he could get her the 70k, she’d be more receptive to his advances. It’s her idea to knock over the entire coin convention, but neither of them has any idea how to pull it off, and they end up going in with Lempke, who brings in Parker.
Parker thinks the whole set-up stinks. He and another seasoned pro, named Jack French, walk out of the meet in disgust–particularly bothered by the fact that Billy, who is supposed to just be the ‘finger’ on this job, is walking around with a gun under his jacket, as if somehow that makes him a pro. Too many amateurs involved, and Lempke seems to have lost his nerve in prison. Too many things could go wrong, and while the pay-off could be big (there’s going to be over two million dollars worth of merchandise), the coins would have to be sold off a bit at a time, by Billy himself–they’d get nothing for weeks or even months afterwards.
French, who Parker is impressed with, is sorry it didn’t work out–he really needs the cash, but it’s not worth risking prison over. Parker, who is still flush, finds himself slipping back into aimlessness, but if it’s bad, it’s bad. He can’t get a plane out of town that night, so he goes back to the hotel. He’s sitting in the dark again, and Claire comes to see him again. This time he doesn’t bother to turn the light on. Claire thinks this is strange, but she sits there in the dark, while he lies in bed gazing at the ceiling. He sees her briefly when she lights a cigarette, and for the first time he feels a very specific desire to make love to her.
Still trying to sell him on the heist, she says she does what she has to do–Parker tells her to take off her clothes. She starts to walk out, and that’s when he lets her have it–
He let her reach the door, and then he said, “Your line was, ‘I do what I have to do.’ But that’s a lie, you wear your pride like it’d keep the cold out. What you mean is, you despise Lebatard and don’t care what you do to him.”
She shut the door again, bringing back the darkness. She said, “What’s wrong with that?”
“Another rule,” he said. “Don’t work with anyone you can’t trust or don’t respect.”
“You have too many rules,” she said.
“I haven’t been inside. Lempke has.”
“What would you have done if I had taken my clothes off?”
“Taken you to bed and left in the morning.”
“Maybe it isn’t pride,” she said. “Maybe I’m just smart.”
Parker laughs again–now she’s definitely got his attention. He’s still not sold on the job, but he’s starting to get sold on her, and just to be around her a while longer, he lets her show him the ballroom where the convention will be held, and master planner that he is, he starts to look for ways to pull the job. It’s a reflex, he can’t help himself.
Billy’s idea was to rob the room the coins are stored in before the convention starts–but the coins will be out in the ballroom Saturday night, because it’s too much work to pack them all up overnight, for this two day event. Parker thinks it would work better to get the coins from the ballroom (temporarily renamed the Bourse Room) Saturday night, after the dealers and collectors have all left. But there will be armed Pinkerton security men stationed there to protect the merchandise. It’s in the middle of a good-sized city. A tough nut to crack. But not impossible.
Claire’s not so tough, if only because she likes Parker as much as he likes her. He wants her to spend the night with him, and she asks if the deal is off if she says no. He says she can just come back and pick him up the next day. She responds “That would be a lot of extra driving, wouldn’t it?” Fade to sex.
Billy’s not happy with the change in plan–or with what he sees going on between Parker and Claire. New complexities are raised–rare coins have to be packed up carefully, or they’ll end up losing much of their value in transit. Parker realizes Billy’s necessary to the job–he’s the only one who knows enough about the goods they’re stealing. But his jealousy is going to be a problem–and it gets worse when Parker and Claire go back to the hotel to look for a way to make this work.
Claire is lying naked in bed next to Parker, wondering why she only dates men like race car drivers and pilots–men who are always about to get killed. Parker is even worse–he’s tempting fate and fighting society at the same time. Parker says that’s not him–“I don’t tempt anybody. I don’t fight anybody. I walk where it looks safe. If it doesn’t look safe, I don’t walk.” Claire says this is what all the adrenaline junkies in her life told her.
“You’ll do it,” she said. “I know your type. You talk safety, but when you smell the right kind of danger, you’re off like a bloodhound.”
She was describing a tendency in him that he’d been fighting all his life, and that he thought of as being under control. Also, it irritated him to be read that easily. With an abrupt movement, he got up from the bed, saying “I’ve still got to look around, while it’s light.”
“Don’t get mad at me,” she said. “You were this way long before I came along.”
Parker looked at her and said “You talk yourself out of a lot of things, don’t you?”
I’d call that one a draw. Also by far the most intimate discussion we’ve seen Parker have with anybody, ever. Claire is getting into his head, under his skin. He’s got to move this into an area where he’s got the advantage–his profession.
So they check out the ballroom again, and this time Parker sees something. A set of French doors that lead nowhere. He realizes there must have been a terrace outside them once, before the adjacent office building went up. What’s on the other side of those doors now is a wall, and on the other side of that wall is a travel agency office–he and Claire go up there, posing as an engaged couple planning their honeymoon. They run a little con game on the receptionist, to get inside the inner office–there’s a pot of African Violets that he saw from the street below–that’s the wall he needs to break through to get to the money.
Parker’s seen all he needs to see–it can be done. He’s still got some details to work out, but he’s convinced. Then Billy comes barging in–he wants to make a scene. Parker’s ready to give up again–the job is okay, but not if it comes with all this drama. Claire tells Billy she’s done with him if he ruins this for her, and he leaves. She tells Parker she can handle Billy. Parker knows this job is going to be trouble, from start to finish–but he can’t let go. Of the job or the woman. He’s hooked.
And hopefully you are too–see you next week. Don’t take any wooden nickels. Unless they’re rare collectibles, of course.