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 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.
22 responses to “Review: The Rare Coin Score”
Since you almost haven’t mentioned the heist itself, I will reserve my opinion for the Part 2.
As for Claire, I always considered her more of a nuisance than a character I care about.
And yet she’s a factor, to a greater or lesser extent, in every subsequent novel–why? What was Westlake trying to say with her? What was the point? Agree, disagree, you must accept that he had one.
Lester Young used to say “I don’t want to be a repeater pencil”–a line that Westlake, as a jazz buff, probably knew. No matter how good what you’ve done may be, if you keep doing the same thing, over and over, it gets stale. He had to test Parker–what’s possible with this character? What would he do in this situation? How would he react? If he can’t do this, he’s going to get bored with the character. He doesn’t just want to write this or that person’s favorite Parker novel, over and over and over again. What came before the Gold Medals was great–if you want to say the series peaked at Pocket, I wouldn’t necessarily argue. But it had to change–or end.
Also, I think he got tired of having to write an obligatory sex scene–why is Claire more a waste of time than all the women who came before her? Now he can write Claire into the story if there’s a point to doing so, and leave her out if he just wants to focus on the heist. So she’s actually SAVING him time. We don’t have to ask how Parker is going to expend his post-heist lust–we know. He’s going to get back to Claire and use it up on her. In fact, as you already know, the cyclical aspect of his sex life becomes much less extreme, after he meets her–the swings are not so pronounced.
Claire makes it more believable that Parker can survive the life he leads–but she could also be a point of vulnerability. If Westlake had written a few more novels before he died–well–he didn’t.
I congratulate myself that I correctly anticipated your reaction to Claire. Sometimes it takes me a while to home in.
She’s a factor, no one can argue with that. But what was the purpose of creating Claire? To see how a wolf can settle (don’t forget we didn’t see how Parker lived with his wife)? To analyze what Claire is to Parker, a house keeper or a bad bitch, as our black brothers say?
In Gold Medal books we only begin to observe the process of Parker settling with Claire. Those books focus not on heist only, but on Parker’s new relationship as well. Maybe that’s why some (me included) see GM novels as a step back, as a phase where Parker showed too much his weak spots. He hadn’t become uncool in our eyes, he just started to care too much about other people.
The thing about Lynn is that Parker felt like they had a real bond, but they didn’t–the reason he’s so crazy in The Hunter is that he can’t process her betrayal. It makes no sense to him. When you get right down to it, it makes no sense, period–why not whisper to him when they’re making love what’s going on, and then he can look for a way to get the drop on Mal and Ryan? Because Mal scared her so much that she lost herself–her identity wasn’t strong enough to withstand the challenge. Lynn seemed hard, but when the test came, she broke. Claire’s big test comes in this book, and it seems like she breaks at first–but Parker isn’t grading her as a heister. He’s watching for other things.
We only saw Parker and Lynn together briefly, just as the relationship was about to end–we never saw how it began–and one thing we do know–they did not have sex when Parker’s cycle ebbed–in the later books, we learn that isn’t the case with Parker and Claire. Parker is still more revved up after a heist, and Claire looks forward to that, but they are lovers whenever they are together. Because their bond is stronger. Because Parker has with Claire what he never had with Lynn.
It’s not perfect–she can never completely understand him. But it’s a major improvement. It really is amazing how Claire sees past Parker’s facade of common sense, and sees that he does what he does because he can’t do anything else. His only real weakness is that his external consciousness comes up with reasons after the fact for the things he is compelled by his inner nature to do. He knows who he is on a cellular level, but not necessarily at a conscious level.
Looking past the metaphysics of Parker (which I have a notorious weakness for expounding on), I must again mention that Westlake was probably feeling fairly bruised by the whole relationship deal when he started writing these novels–depictions of women in the first few books are seriously harsh–he was venting, letting off steam. This isn’t really how he feels about women in general, he knows it’s not fair, but writing this kind of story gives him the license to let that kind of emotion out. There’s a woman-hater in every man, just like there’s a man-hater in every woman. Pretending they don’t exist doesn’t make them go away. We have to learn how to live together, and sometimes it really sucks. But the alternative is worse.
I don’t know exactly what was going on with his second marriage or love life at the time he wrote this one, but I’d interpret this book as at least partly him thinking he needed to find somebody permanent. Not all relationships are doomed. When you know what you really need, then you can find it. Or it will find you. It’s a hopeful statement. And to a certain extent, a true one.
She’s no housekeeper (we can talk about this more when I get to Deadly Edge), but she does create a sort of den for him. He can’t keep moving around all the time. She provides a place where he can relax just a bit. But if somebody comes to the house looking for him, he can still break the guy’s neck. He’s not soft–he’s just making a little room for a life.
Any way of life has its drawbacks–he thinks about this in TRCS. But if Parker wasn’t vulnerable at any point, why would he behave the way he does in The Hunter? Why not wait a few more weeks, get released from the prison camp, pull a few jobs, wait his time? Why does he need to find Lynn, kill Mal, right then? Because he can’t do anything else. Because he’s Parker.
We’ve already discussed his helping Grofield, his odd little acts of mercy. He’s not heartless. His heart just functions differently–selectively. Westlake said he has a very small circle, but if you’re inside it, you’re safe from him. Claire is not fully inside that circle yet. But she’s getting there.
I can understand some readers thinking Claire marks the end of a certain phase in the saga–because she does. One way or another, it had to change, if it was going to continue, because Westlake couldn’t stand pointless repetition, ritual for the sake of ritual. But I also think Westlake was pointing to this shift as far back as The Score, with Parker’s reaction to Mary Deegan’s poise under pressure. He hasn’t seen much to admire in most women–or men–but if you show him you’re an exception, he will believe you. Because a wolf doesn’t have ideology. A wolf trusts his senses. If you get new information that doesn’t jibe with past experience, you pay attention–or you die. That’s the law of nature. Parker’s only real law.
You quoted in your review Claire’s words where she says she is smart. She handles quite well the situation in this novel, she finds her way out of some tough situation with two lowlifes in The Deadly Edge. I can agree that she’s smart.
Let’s look, though, at Claire’s activities, at the times when Parker is away on business. What does she do at those periods of time? Just worries about Parker? Reads glossy magazines? Watches TV? Works on her PhD?
Claire is smart in the way Parker is smart, but is she really intellegent, bright, educated woman? I don’t remember Stark ever mentioning that Claire finished college. What she does at home is not the way I imagine a smart woman does. She is very close to Parker there. he does nothing, she does nothing. Except shopping, maybe.
When Parker is back from a job, I can see that she runs around him, comforting him and meowing. Is that her job? Take a look at Claire and Tobin’s wife. It’s 60s, the men works, and the women – still just housekeepers? If Claire were smart woman, she would find her a job, not for money, just something to sharpen her mind on the regular basis.
In the world of Richard Stark, education and intelligence are two entirely different things–but Claire does mainly read books, not glossy magazines. She’s reading a paperback in The Green Eagle Score (we can hardly judge her harshly for that), and an edition of Aphra Behn’s writings in Flashfire. It’s not a major plot point, but she is intellectually curious, in a way Parker of course never will be.
We don’t need to know most of what she does when Parker isn’t there, because that’s not what the books are about. I don’t think it would be terribly smart of her to shackle herself to a desk, become a wage slave, just to fill the time. If you don’t need to do work you don’t find interesting in itself, you’d be a fool to do it–and really interesting work is hard to find anywhere, anytime. Most jobs exist for people to support themselves, not stimulate their brains. I work in a library, and I assure you 90% of what I do is not stimulating in the least. Why do you think I have this blog?
Westlake protagonists, in the main, don’t have jobs in the accepted sense (and if they do, it’s considered a weakness). Neither did Westlake himself, for most of his life–he worked very hard to avoid that kind of work. I don’t think he considered working for an employer–any employer–to be a fulfilling way of life. He understands that it’s necessary most of us live that way, but his heroes are the ones who escape it somehow, find a niche for themselves where they can be free. And don’t we read his books, in part, because we get to participate vicariously in that freedom?
In the 1960’s, the ideal (if not necessarily the reality) was still that men worked, and women stayed at home. But Claire isn’t interested in that ideal–she has a house because she wants a house. It’s not something that was foisted upon her–she has to talk Parker into it, and if she never vacuumed or cooked, he’d have nothing to say about it–he might not even notice.
She likes the sense of stability it gives her, and it does also provide Parker with a home base–she provides him with a number of useful services (aside from the obvious)–she certainly earns her keep, high-maintenance though she certainly is. But to Westlake, her primary value would be that he no longer has to squeeze in some obligatory sex interest for Parker, or send Parker to some Florida resort hotel to swim aimlessly against the tide. As interesting and unique as Parker’s sexual cycle is, it probably got to be a pain to write around.
And just to state the obvious–Claire is an incredibly beautiful woman. Incredibly beautiful women, in any society, throughout history, have not been held to the same standards of productivity as the rest of humanity–or if they wanted to be productive, they had a hard time finding ways to be so.
Some may become actresses or models–Hedy Lamarr was a brilliant scientist, and she ended up making Hollywood films, because she was just too damn beautiful. What’s Claire’s life going to be like in any profession? Sexual harassment, people assuming she got where she was because of her looks, and probably never taken seriously because of them. Her best option is to marry for money, but she doesn’t much care for that option–she’s looking for a different kind of life, and she finds it with Parker. Odds are it won’t last, but what ever does? Nobody runs forever.
She had life on something like her own terms. The one thing missing was travel abroad with Parker (she could travel on her own), and there’s a hint at the very end of the saga that she may get that too.
Curious–are you accusing Claire of Oblomovism? (I studied a lot of Russian history, you know). 🙂
Oblomovism – what a silly word! That’s a non-existent term, invented specially for a non-Slavic ear. Oblomovschina – that’s a real term, I guess, it’s hard to pronounce.
I don’t accuse Claire of anything. Housekeeping full time, she is more like a moll than a smart woman, capable of applying her wits to something useful.
My friend’s married sister had been at one time stay-at-home wife, at a pretty far out place in the North town. That drove her mad – loneliness, absence of hobbies and any activities. She and her husband decided to move to a city, where she can study and work, otherwise their marriage would fall apart.
And don’t tell me about harassment. I believe it’s a myth. More important: I never imagine Claire as a beautiful woman. In my imagination she’s plain, smart, not a model. I don’t know if Westalke ever mention particularies about her beauty. So, in my mind, there can’t be any harassment, if she’s plain.
I think you need to reread The Rare Coin Score–or really, any novel where Claire is prominently mentioned–she’s very clearly depicted as one of the most attractive women imaginable. Men are constantly shooting lustful looks at her and envious looks at Parker when he’s with her–even the Pinkerton guards are ogling her in the hotel lobby. “Face and figure of a fashion model” is hardly meant to convey plainness. She’s beautiful and sexy (not necessarily the same thing, but she’s got both).
As I went to some pains to point out, the reason she’s not described in any great detail is so that the reader will imagine some feminine ideal. Obviously in your case, that didn’t work as planned. But you’re the only Stark reader I know who thinks of Claire as plain.
We are all individuals–I liked your story about your friend’s sister, but that’s her–you’re assuming Claire does nothing but hang around the house all year, waiting for Parker to come back, and I think it’s pretty clear that isn’t her life at all. It’s a small house–keeping it up takes very little of her time. If she feels like cooking, she cooks. If she doesn’t, they go out.
She’s got money, and free time, and when Parker’s working, she can indulge her personal interests–and remember, Parker is only working a few weeks out of the year, and the rest of the time he’s either having sex or sitting in dark rooms doing nothing–maybe we should accuse him of Oblomovism (as to the disliked English term, take it up with my Russian history professor, who was extremely fluent, and still said ‘Oblomovism’ when speaking English–some things just don’t entirely translate).
She probably has any number of interests, that Stark never bothers to tell us about because there’s no point, but my point is that she’s living life her own way. Maybe she, like Parker, enjoys brief spurts of activity, followed by long stretches of just existing–that’s part of their compatibility. But she’s living the life she chose. In that sense, no different from your friend’s sister, who is choosing to work when she doesn’t have to (a very different thing from working because you have no choice). It’s the choice that matters most of all–to make your life, not to have it made for you. Claire made a choice to share her life with Parker, and if you think that’s a boring choice, I really don’t know what to tell you.
Technically, she’s sexually harassed by Billy Lebatard in this very book I’m reviewing (and I think you’ve forgotten Otto Mainzer’s reaction to her, and hers to him), but of course Stark would never use that term–he’s still aware that men who can’t get a woman by their own merits will try more coercive means. What balances it out is that Claire is using him–feeling that he deserves it, for (among other things) trying to coerce her into bed, but he still intends to do so, right up until the very end.
In Billy’s mind, Claire gets not one penny from a heist that was her idea, that she helped plan and execute, unless she has sex with him–and of course there’d be no heist without Parker, and no Parker without Claire, so Billy is going to use money she got him to compel her into what I hope we can agree would be a very disagreeable encounter (how’d you like to have sex with the female equivalent of Billy Lebatard?). That’s his idea of how things are going to go–doesn’t matter what you call it. It sucks by any name, and it’s something women have put up with for a very long time.
You could even argue she’s harassed by Parker (“Take off your clothes”) but sexual harassment is generally defined as unwanted sexual attention, and it seems like Parker’s attentions are almost never unwanted, by any woman, ever. It’s not fair, but you don’t read these books for fairness.
I won’t turn this, of all blogs, into a place for PC lectures, but for the record, I believe sexual harassment exists, and I don’t believe only beautiful women suffer from it. Theoretically, men can be harassed too, but it rarely works out like that. Well, except in prison, obviously. You know that’s not a myth, right? 🙂
I will agree that Claire is a useful plot and structure tool, but she will remain plain to me. Don’t you dare harass me on that!
If you hate it so much, why do you keep coming back for more? 😉
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This (and Part 2) is a really good dive into what makes Claire such an addition to the series. As a partner without a criminal record, she could be a tremendous asset, but there are aspects to his life that she will never get used to. Maybe she is the “rare coin” referred to in the title — too easy of an analogy for “serious” literature, but probably just right for Stark’s page-turner.
After all, the whole issue of coins being an investment or pure speculation hasn’t ever been resolved (here it’s rare coins, in 2017 it’s BitCoin). Is Parker making a reasonable choice with Claire, or is he taking on risk – out of instinct?
There are those, as you see, who don’t like Claire. How you react to her will, to some extent, depend on how you feel about romantic relationships in general. Some would prefer Parker to be at liberty to sleep with any beauty he crosses paths with, as he did in past.
I’ve had guys tell me Parker wouldn’t feel anything if Claire died, even though they’ve read the books in which he shows he’ll go through hell to protect her. They just filter all that out. They’re projecting their own issues with the opposite sex into him. It’s best to try and remember that nobody who reads a Parker novel can ever be like Parker, not least because Parker would never read a novel. He wouldn’t see the point. (Also true of John Dortmunder, though he was once compelled to read one.)
One important influence on Westlake was his friend and sometimes mentor, John D. MacDonald, whose Travis McGee books have been even more popular and influential than the Parker novels (though I’d say the latter are holding up better over time). McGee is always finding some new lady love, and he is always true to her, and desires no other–and then she gets killed off, and he moves on–rare for any of them to make it to the next book. It’s a bit like the love lives of the Cartwright boys on Bonanza. And a bit of a cheat, no? But in series fiction, formula must be served. Same deal with James Bond. But not, somehow, with Parker. He breaks all the rules, and gets away with it. Because he’s different from all the other literary tough guys.
Claire marks a major change in the overall formula of the series, and I’d say this was because Westlake himself was feeling more settled, but maybe also because it was just getting to be a pain to have to keep writing in a love interest, if that’s even the right term to employ in this instance. Claire doesn’t factor that heavily into most of the remaining books, but she’s there when needed–never at any time a burden to the narrative. There’s one more book in which she’s an important POV character. Because, as you say, she’s not quite part of Parker’s world. She’s aware of it, accepts it, but exists outside of it. That may be changing at the very end of the series, but it’s unclear where that subplot was going.
Other readers would like her to be a a much more active participant in Parker’s crimes. I will confess, I have wondered what the series might have been like if Parker had ended up with Brenda Mackey, or Noelle Kay Braselle–you’ll know what I mean as you work your way through the later books in the series. But for Parker, that would be too much of a distraction. Claire isn’t like him, and he doesn’t really want her to be.
Still, a pair of wolves in human form, hunting together, perhaps raising a litter of creatures like themselves–would have been interesting. Maybe more the stuff of science fiction. Or horror.
You know, thinking it over this morning, as I read this over (never know when you’ll find a typo, or a turn of phrase that could be improved upon), I was moved to wonder if Westlake was intentionally muddying the waters by making Claire a redhead in Nobody Runs Forever and a blonde in Dirty Money. Making a joke about the intended vagueness of her physical appearance. He didn’t just forget. If he did, he had editors who’d point it out. He was capable of making mistakes, but not anything this obvious. And he probably remembered all the conflicting paperback covers, not to mention those illustrations in the For Men Only reprints.
And his point is that it doesn’t matter. It’s only hair. At times he got so bored with the mane motif that he would describe somebody as having ‘hair-colored’ hair. We make follicular tints stand in for personality (and in crime fiction most of all) because we don’t know ourselves well enough.
That being said, Parker was never a blonde or a redhead, and I don’t think Claire ever was either. We are visually oriented creatures, and it’s a tough habit to shake.
I re-read the Parkers often, and with each re-read, I always come upon something new to chew over. There’s a quote in this section that I don’t believe has ever been discussed on this blog, though I think it’s worth considering. It occurs when Parker and French wait for their cabs in a local bar.
(Man, that must have been a fun sentence to write.)
On this re-read, that particular quote sent me down a Willie Sutton rabbit hole, and I came across the following passage from Sutton’s memoir (in which he refutes the famous quote attributed to him):
You know what year Sutton’s memoir was published? 1976, or seven years after the publication of this novel.
Sounds like a book worth reading. Maybe even reviewing. If I ever get back to that again. This is also worth a look–
(Needless to say, Westlake is referenced.)
There’s a quote in Nobody Runs Forever that seems to channel that sense of the thrill some people get from a well-planned robbery, when they’re preparing to hit the armored car.
Yeah, I remember that quote from the bar. Sounds like The Indianapolis chapter of the O.J. Regulars. There’s one in every town. (Scores, even.)
Memory truly is a funny thing (as Paul Cole might say). I’m just now rereading this one (maybe my fifth time through?), found the Sutton quote, and this time it connected. Because I’ve read both Sutton bios now, starting with the ’76, then got a physical edition of the ’54, which Westlake undoubtedly read before he ever got to writing heist stories. And I do mean undoubtedly. Sutton was a major influence on him, so just as you’d expect, Westlake only dealt with him obliquely in his work. But he wanted us to know, all the same.
I completely forgot you brought all this up less than two years ago. Parallel trains of thought, but mine is always late, somehow. Well, we Irish never expect the trains to be on time.
So all this being said, what’s so strange about Parker temporarily misfiling having worked with Otto Mainzer in the past? The past is a foreign country. For all of us. Sometimes you have to get your passport renewed.
The great thing about this blog is that all those thoughts and observations are frozen in place, like mosquitos trapped in amber, just waiting for future archeologists to unearth them — even if those future archeologists are just us. (All of which is to say is I didn’t remember the above exchange either.)
This is one reason why I’ve never upgraded the blog, as WordPress keeps urging me to. I could afford the fees. But if the payments stopped (because Life, and its inevitable denouement), what would happen to all this?
I’d like to think this will stick around, in one form or other. But who can say? For all I know, Watanabe-san’s playground was razed to make way for a Trump condo in Tokyo (yes, of course there is one, and of course he doesn’t really own it).
But in our minds, it lives forever. To build something, anything, that others can enjoy, even for a brief time–that’s the closest to immortality anyone can hope for. That is why we’re here. Fall in love, maidens. Before the crimson bloom fades from your lips.
I’m piecing it together. The tangled skeins of memory, aided a bit by digitized data.
The very day you posted about Sutton’s ’76 memoirs, I bought them for my Kindle. Then went on reading other things, figuring I’d get to them. Finally, having temporarily run out of other books to read, I started in–much later. After I’d forgotten how I came to obtain the book.
I was enraptured–it’s so good, you almost want it to be fiction. I mean, if all our lives were that interesting (and that dangerous), you’d almost think fiction would be redundant. (But there he is, opining on the Shakespearean authorship question, meaning it wasn’t for him, particularly when he was doing another long stretch).
So it’s all your fault. I hope you’re satisfied.
You know, I am, actually.
“I liked it. I was good at it. And I was really … I was alive.” — Walter White