He had been married once, but she was dead now. She’d gotten into a bind, where she’d had the choice of risking her own life or betraying Parker, and she’d chosen betrayal. When Parker had come looking for her afterward, unsure in his own mind what he meant to do about it, she’d killed herself. Out of panic, probably, rather than remorse. But since her, since Lynn, there had been no other woman, not for long. Never long enough for him and the woman to become individuals to one another.
Looking at it now, he could see where it had served as an answer to the problem of Lynn’s betrayal, but it was the kind of answer which–like drugs–required large and larger application, led eventually to sloppiness and excess, became eventually as bad a problem as the one it was supposed to be solving.
Because Claire had come into his life in an odd way, entering in conjunction with a job, almost becoming part of the work at hand, she’d managed somehow to break through that pattern he’d developed. He found himself wanting to please her, willing to go out of his way for her sake, and though he’d been giving himself practical reasons to explain it–she could handle Billy, and so on–the truth was that he acted that way because he wanted to.
This was the first of four Parker novels originally published by Gold Medal Books, and though specific sales numbers will presumably never be available, it seems reasonable to assume the series was peaking in popularity right about now. Westlake said for a period in the late 60’s/early 70’s, the Stark books were outselling the books written under his own name–1967 is late 60’s. Though Westlake was writing under several other names during this period, so I wonder if he was talking just about Westlake vs. Stark, or including the Four C’s–Coe, Clark, Cunningham and Culver–on the Westlake side? I’m guessing not, so let’s go with that.
Between 1967 and 1974, Stark and Westlake produced 12 novels apiece (including one Westlake co-wrote with Brian Garfield). That includes the Grofield books in the Stark column, being published elsewhere, and which I tend to doubt were ever that big, so Parker may have been significantly outselling anything else Westlake wrote in this period, at least until Dortmunder got established as a series character in his own right (Westlake’s biggest selling book of the 1960’s was probably The Fugitive Pigeon).
Westlake also wrote short stories, articles, a children’s book–and the Westlake novels were much more varied in their subject matter, protagonists, and approach to the material. Westlake was all over the place, being funny, serious, doing crime fiction, other genres, books that didn’t seem to have any genre (or even a definable audience)–Stark just had to be Stark. With Westlake, you never knew what was coming next–with Stark, you knew damn well. That was Stark’s advantage, and also his limitation.
But Stark did evolve as a writer as the series went on. Westlake didn’t want his alter ego to get stale, rest on his laurels, repeat himself too much. When you’re doing a lot of books about one character, it’s very hard to not just keep writing the same book, over and over, all the more since a lot of your most loyal readers may want you to do just that. It’s also very tempting to push the envelope too far, do something that just doesn’t fit the character, as Westlake very nearly did later on, when he started writing The Hot Rock for Parker, only to realize it couldn’t work–Parker wouldn’t bend that way. To move a series character forward, but always in the right direction–easy to say, tough to do. Missteps are nearly impossible to avoid.
Many Parker readers would say The Rare Coin Score, while a good book in itself, was just such a misstep. I see what they’re saying, and don’t agree. It was a necessary step. For Stark, and for Parker. But it was a risky step for both of them as well.
This is a single-protagonist series. Though each book has interesting supporting characters, Parker is basically the whole show. And the common wisdom in the publishing biz (without which, as Westlake liked to say, there’d be no wisdom at all), was that you didn’t saddle a male crime fiction protagonist with a steady girl.
For example, in the early days of the 87th Precinct series, Salvatore Albert Lombino, aka Ed McBain, had this notion that the precinct itself was the protagonist. A collective hero, so to speak. But his publisher wanted him to make Detective Steve Carella the hero–then after Carella got married to his sweetheart Teddy, they wanted him pushed to the sidelines, and a bachelor detective to take his place–the reason being that now he was a married man, female readers wouldn’t find him interesting anymore, couldn’t project themselves into his various love interests (don’t ask me why they couldn’t just go on identifying with Teddy, who was in the very first book–or with the cops, one of whom was female–I’m not a publisher).
Similarly, any woman James Bond fell for either had to die or become unavailable somehow. Because readers want him to remain a free agent, even though he might be shown sometimes to dream of settling down–but they don’t want him to be a complete heel and just love&leave ’em (as he did in the movies)–so kill the girl–problem solved.
Now Parker wasn’t primarily aimed at a female audience, because another common wisdom was that women read hardcover mysteries, and men read paperbacks. In reality, it was never that cut and dried, as I’ve mentioned in other reviews. Still, guys reading Parker novels for escapism probably enjoyed Parker having a different girl in each book–or just felt like the girl wasn’t that important–Parker only cares about himself, right? Giving him a girl he actually gives a damn about ruins that, or so the lament typically goes.
But I don’t think that was ever so cut and dried either. Parker doesn’t care about anyone else because it’s not in his interest to do so–but what if it was? What if his true nature was monogamous? What if he needs a steady girl to–you know–steady him? And she becomes an extension of himself–a potential point of vulnerability, for sure–but also a way for him to avoid spinning out of control, losing himself. One thing’s for sure–Parker can’t do without the opposite sex. Not after a heist. And the more often he has to find a new woman, the more often he leaves himself open to the kinds of problems we’ve seen in the previous books, and to the unstable restless behavior we saw at the beginning of this one.
But more than that–Parker is, I’ll say it one more time (this review), a wolf that somehow got born into a man’s body. And wolves are not naturally polyamorous as we humans (and the wolves we domesticated) typically are. Wild wolves instinctively seek to bind themselves to a single partnership, that lasts for as long as both partners survive. And having created this bond, they will go to almost any lengths to preserve it, quite famously in one case. Westlake may not have reasoned it out anything like this, but if he didn’t, I really don’t know where he came up with that cyclical sex angle for Parker.
But on a more pragmatic, less metaphysical level, Westlake may have simply felt like he’d done as much as he could with the old pattern. It was getting tiresome finding ways to write Parker’s cyclical sex life into the story, and the simplest way to deal with that would be to get Parker a girl he could be credibly faithful to (clearly, it would have to be some amazing girl), and then she could be a variously important part of the story when needed, or just briefly referred to when her presence was not required, which would be most of the time.
And quite simply, this was different than what anybody else in the crime genre was doing–yes, Mike Hammer had the eternally faithful Velda, but she was never very believable, was she? Pure wish-fulfillment, no personal agenda–no personality to speak of–just a female version of Hammer, entirely subservient to the male one. Claire would be more than just some long-suffering gal friday. The relationship between her and Parker would be elusive, shifting in its boundaries, impossible to quantify. And neither of them would ever say the ‘L’ word–not even once. If something’s real, you don’t have to talk about it. You just know. That’s how Richard Stark would see it. That’s how Parker would do it. Differently than anyone else.
But as we pick up the story in Part Two, he’s made no decision about Claire, and is still primarily focused on figuring out how to steal several million dollars in rare coins from a well-guarded hotel ballroom. He’s figured out that the best option is to break through the wall of an adjoining office building and take the Pinkerton guards by surprise. But there’s still a lot of details to be worked out.
He and Lempke start to assemble a string–with so little time before the convention starts, they can’t be too picky. They need somebody to drive the truck they’ll pack the coins in–that’ll be Mike Carlow, a self-styled race car driver and designer most of the year, who will factor into many future heists Parker is involved with–he’s not a big part of this story, so I’ll talk about him more some other time.
They also need a big strong guy to move the merchandise to the truck. Lempke suggests Dan Wycza, the wrestler/heister who we met in The Score–Parker says he’s dead. Mark Twain might have a snide remark to make about that.
They settle on Otto Mainzer, a homegrown Nazi, and the most racist, misogynist, sociopathic, and all-round disgusting personality we’ve met in the series so far. A real charmer, is Otto. A man of many talents, one of which is rape (based on his experience, he’s gotten the idea women don’t really like sex). We’re not supposed to like him, and we don’t–but he fits the needs of the string in two ways–the second being that he’s an accomplished arsonist–he sets the fire that shuts down the travel agency in the adjacent building. Parker wouldn’t work with him if he wasn’t a professional, but he wishes to himself that heisters like him wouldn’t keep bringing their issues to work with them–Mainzer and Carlow are not exactly thick as thieves, each making little digs at the other, and Mainzer has a question to ask–
After Carlow had left, Mainzer said, “What is he, Parker, do you know?”
“What do you mean, what is he?”
“What kind of name is Carlow? Is it Jewish?”
Parker looked at him and didn’t say anything.
Mainzer spread his hands. “Don’t get me wrong” he said, “I’ll work with anybody. Just so they know their job, that’s all.”
“That’s the way to be,” Parker said.
“I was just wondering, that’s all.”
“Wonder next week.”
(If you’re wondering, Carlow is a name commonly found in Britain, and is also the name of a county in Ireland. And Mainzer is an idiot. A rather believably drawn one for me, because many years ago, I was at this Celtic Heritage Festival in Brooklyn, over by a table full of books, and one of them was by Gerry Adams, the President of Sinn Fein, and had his picture on it. This big dead-eyed skinhead guy who I think had some notion he was of Gaelic derivation came over, and seeing the book said “Is that Gerry Adams? He looks Semitic.” We then somehow got into a brief discussion of racial matters, and turns out I’m a self-hating white man. There’s no end of Otto Mainzers out there. Westlake probably learned a lot about them researching The Spy in the Ointment. But I digress.)
Is Parker offended on behalf of his Jewish colleagues (who might well include Lempke, though it’s never brought up)? Hardly. He’s just irritated Mainzer would let his private mania threaten a job of his. Mainzer knows perfectly well what that look Parker directs at him means–“If you screw this up, I’ll kill you.” He resolves to get Parker and Carlow after the job is over, but you ever noticed how these looming confrontations in the Parker novels never work out as planned? Much like the heists themselves.
Lempke is the biggest question mark in the whole job–though he’s only in his Mid-50’s, prison aged him prematurely, and Parker knows he’s not mentally geared up for the job. He just doesn’t know what else to do He’s got nothing and nobody, and he needs a stake. He knows as well as Parker that he’s lost his nerve, but he’s got to act as if it’s still there, and hope that the professional in him didn’t die in prison, with what was left of his youth.
“Lempke’s still down inside here,” he said, patting his chest. “He’ll come out when we need him.”
“I know that,” Parker lied.
He offers Lempke one out after another–even says maybe they could work out a finder’s fee–Lempke is insulted. He brought Parker into this job. He’s the first real pro to get involved with it. Claire, amateur though she be, has her doubts about him, now that she’s seen what the real thing looks like. She asks Parker what happens if Lempke doesn’t come out when needed. Parker says he will–or else he’ll get out before it’s too late. He doesn’t really know this is true–he wants to believe it.
This may, in fact, be the most surprising reaction we see from Parker in the book, not his behavior towards Claire. He just can’t bring himself to give Lempke the bum’s rush. Nobody would stop him, Lempke least of all. Is he thinking about what happened to Joe Sheer in The Jugger? Does he want to see this story end differently? If there’s one thing on this earth that’s sacred to him, it’s his profession–and Lempke was a very capable practitioner. He isn’t concerned for Lempke’s life, but dislikes seeing his professional identity so hopelessly degraded and lost–it’s aesthetically displeasing to him. He wants to see the real Lempke again.
Parker and Claire take a road-trip together in Billy’s car to pick up the needed truck. Parker’s automotive expeditions are always one of my favorite parts of any book but this one is decidedly different–he says Claire needs to come along so she can drive the car back while he drives the truck, but she’s not entirely buying that excuse, nor should she.
Their relationship keeps deepening–and they keep having sex, which should not be happening–Parker is fully involved in planning the job now. But she’s somehow part of the job, and alluring to him in a way no other woman has been. She challenges him, forces him to reconsider old assumptions about himself. He does have to explain to her that when he’s deep in planning mode, he’s not thinking about anything else, and she has to leave him alone. He goes to bed one night and doesn’t so much as touch her–much to her disgust.
But then something she says gives him the missing piece to the plan he’s mapping out, and all of a sudden his libido ramps up, and he hustles her back to the motel. She’s broken through his sexual cycle, but he still doesn’t completely trust her. He still remembers Lynn.
Billy Lebatard, still thinking that he can get Claire for himself once the heist is over, is none too happy with all this coziness. He tries to get Parker to promise he’ll leave without Claire, and Parker says he will, but doesn’t really know. The way Billy had it mapped, he’ll be selling off the coins, and the first half will go to Parker, Lempke, Carlow, and Mainzer–he gets the second half, and any money Claire gets comes from him–the seventy grand she wants so she can be independent, not have to go looking for a new husband in a hurry. She has no intention of ever giving Billy what he wants, and he has no intention of letting her go–he says he loves her, but orphaned at an early age, never socialized to any great extent, he has no idea what the word means.
Billy’s only true compatriots have been other coin collectors–the very people he’s helped rob in the past, and is going to rob en masse at the convention, and this is eating at him. He knows he’s betraying the one good thing in him–his passion for coins, his shared understanding with other enthusiasts, who have been the only people who ever accepted him, treated him with any sense of fellowship. He never had much of a sense of self to start with, but now he’s got none at all. He’s a horny balding numismatic nerd, trying to win a girl who finds him pitiable at best, repugnant at worst. Parker calls it right–“You know how you make pity? One jigger guilt, one jigger contempt. But Claire’s got nothing to be guilty about over you.”
Billy won’t take good advice when offered, or learn from his mistakes. He doesn’t want to accept who he is–his insistence on carrying around a gun he doesn’t need and probably doesn’t know how to use shows us that. Earlier in the book, Jack French, the cool professional heister fallen on hard times who passed on this job, says he bets it’s pearl-handled. “Chrome,” Claire responds wearily. Billy’s affectations convince no one but him.
The day of the heist arrives, and in spite of the fact that this is not going down as one of Parker’s better strings, things go smoothly at first. Most of all with Lempke, who is delighted to discover that he wasn’t bluffing–the old professional really is still down in there, waiting to come out, and when Parker gives him one last challenge before they head for the hotel, he looks Parker dead in the eye and says he’s ready to do his job. Parker studies him closely–then smiles slightly–“Hello, Lempke,” he responds. He’s genuinely pleased.
They go in through their self-made private entrance, and catch the Pinkertons offguard, much to their disgust–there’s more outside the Bourse Room, so they can’t take too long. Billy and Lempke get the coins worth taking packed away, and Mainzer carts them down, one heavy case at a time, to the waiting Mike Carlow, disguised as a utilities worker hanging out by his truck.
The string is working out okay as long as the job continues, but there’s trouble looming ahead–Mainzer and Carlow both have plans for right after the heist, both involving violence–each is ready to take the other’s head off for various slights, real and perceived. Mainzer intends to have it out with Parker too, and man would we all love to see that fight, but then Mainzer’s vengeful musings are cut short by a guy with a tire iron who knocks him out cold.
Mike Carlow gets taken offguard by the same guy, and put out of commission. Then the guy points a gun at an astonished Lebatard, and Billy the hopeless amateur, wearing his chrome-handled pistol under his coat, after Parker expressly told him not to even think about bringing it on the job with him, tries to draw down on a seasoned pro. He will not be missed. Least of all by his fellow collectors, though they certainly will be talking about him for a long time to come.
Claire, hearing the shot, knowing what it means, suddenly realizes what she’s been doing–the game she was playing, but it’s not a game. It was never a game. People die for real in armed robberies. Her carefully cultivated poise collapses, her knees give way, and she sinks into hysteria. Parker slaps her, but she won’t calm down–he grabs her and heads for the hole in the wall, only to see Lempke stagger out, his head bleeding–“French!” he says. Claire starts screaming.
French could be waiting for them on the other side–nothing to do now but go out through the lobby, and Parker has to shoot one of the guards and use the near-comatose Claire as a shield to make that work–he gets down to the truck, just as French, heisting the heist, is about to pull away. They can’t settle their differences now–the cops are coming. They hide out in a nearby parking garage, and French explains that he badly needed the cash, and didn’t realize Parker had decided to participate after all. He just intended to take it over, figuring it was all amateurs except Lempke. Parker couldn’t care less about his explanations. But he’s got to bide his time.
Claire has gone from hysteria to chalk-faced shock to weeping as if her heart will break. She pretended not to care about anyone but herself, but it was a lie. She can’t deal with violence, with killing. Not when it’s happening right in front of her. It’s not who she is. Parker is worried–does he have to kill her?
He will if there’s no other choice–particularly if she wants to expiate her guilt by turning herself in–but he’s strongly inhibited from doing so, unusually so. He views the prospect with something very much like dread. She hasn’t gotten quite close enough to him yet for her to be completely safe from him–but sensing Parker’s conflict, she tells him no matter what happens, she’ll never talk to the law. He wants to believe her, but doesn’t completely trust her–she did break under pressure, and might again, though her brief identity crisis appears to have passed. Still, she’s reassured him enough for his ancillary law–don’t make murder the answer to everything–to combine with his growing attachment to her, and keep her from becoming a dead woman in his mind.
They end up at the apartment of a passing acquaintance of Claire’s, an attractively chunky bottle blonde in a pink negligee named Mavis Gross, who Claire says nobody will miss if she isn’t seen for a few days. Parker and French tie and blindfold her, before Claire comes in, so she won’t know who fingered her place as a potential hideout. French has a fence for the coins, but won’t say who it is. Parker parked the car with the coins (damn, I see what Westlake meant about wishing he hadn’t named him Parker) somewhere French could never find it. They’re deadlocked, but not for long.
In the meantime, Parker and Claire have to figure this situation out.
Parker put both hands flat on the Formica tabletop, and looked at his hands as he spoke. “Sometime in the next few days, he said, “I’m going to kill French. You want to be around for it?”
“No. I don’t want to hear about it. Never again, Parker. I never want to hear about any of it.”
He looked up at her. “What, then?”
“I want to be with you,” she said. “I know sometimes you’ll have to go away and do these things, but those times you can’t talk about. Not tell me anything, not before, not after.”
“That’s how I’d be. Whether you wanted it or not.”
“The question is, do you want me?”
He looked at her. “I don’t know for how long,” he said.
“For a while.”
He nodded. “For a while.”
He’s the last man on earth who’d promise forever. She’s the last woman on earth who’d ever expect it. They make their arrangement–she’ll go to the law, but not to confess–to tell a story about how she was a hostage. She’ll have to make it good–they’ll know Billy was involved, and of her connection to him, but there’s nobody to finger her–even if the cops suspect, they can’t prove anything. And men always want to believe a woman like Claire.
Parker says in two months time, she should go to the Central Hotel, in Utica New York. There’ll be a room registered for her under the name Claire Carroll (she finally gets a last name, but it’s not hers–otherwise, why would Parker need to tell her?). She should wait there for him. He’ll come for her.
With Claire gone, Parker has to concentrate on French–normally these two would have worked well together, sharing a similar professional ethos, but now, in this unstable situation, each of them knows the other is waiting his moment. French gives Parker the name of the fence, and leaves, saying Parker can get him his share through his professional contact. Parker lies in wait for him, for a long time–he almost starts to believe French meant it–then French comes in, gun drawn–he wants the whole pile. Parker knocks him out and ties him up.
Then Parker unties Mavis, and tells her French was going to kill her. She’s suitably grateful, and reacting to Parker in the way women typically do, and he just finished a job–and Claire is gone. He takes her on the couch, and there’s no sense of infidelity. Something hasn’t been finalized between him and Claire. But Mavis herself is never going to be in the running–to her astonishment, Parker ties her up again afterward. No hard feelings, but there have been enough surprises on this job already.
They express their mutual gratitude a few times more before he leaves, and by the time he does, she’s disinclined to call the cops. A good sport, is Mavis Gross. Little does she knows she’s been given the signal honor of being the last woman Parker ever has sex with who isn’t Claire.
The fence drives in from Akron, and while he’s not happy to be dealing with a stranger instead of French, he’s open to a deal–the papers say the thieves got away with about 750k in coins–they also say that Mainzer and Carlow are in custody, Billy Lebatard was the mastermind (perhaps he’d be pleased to be taken seriously just once in his life), and Lempke died of his head injury.
Parker wants 200k, and the fence grudgingly agrees–Parker gives him the keys to the car the coins are in, and the location. Parker will pick up the cash in Akron later–and he’ll make sure Mainzer and Carlow each get 50 grand–Lempke and Billy’s shares died with them. Parker takes 100 grand. French is out of the money. In more ways than one.
Wait a minute–is that math right? Parker didn’t finance this job, and it was for even shares. Why not split the money three ways? Because Claire was part of this job. She earned her money. If she does what she said she’d do, and meets Parker, then she’s proved herself, and they’ll spend the money together. If he didn’t think she was going to come through, he’d split the money three ways.
Parker has just one more duty to attend to. Now, French was probably a dead man in Parker’s mind the moment Lempke gasped out his name. But we can never be completely sure–if he’d stuck with what he’d said, trusted Parker to get him his share, maybe Parker would have been able to resist the urge to hunt him down afterwards. Probably not, but maybe. French wanted all the money, and he also didn’t want Parker coming after him, so he made a play–and it failed.
Now Parker is marching him down an alleyway, and he knows what’s coming. He asks Parker why he can’t just take the money and go–“You soured a job of mine.” French knocks Parker down and runs–Parker was expecting that, waiting for it–almost like he needed something to trigger him–he liked French when he first met him. He shoots once, and French falls. He doesn’t bother to check for a pulse.
Two months later, we find him casing the Central Hotel in Utica, where he’s been for several days now, watching Claire come and go, watching for cops, watching for a trap. Maybe they got wise to her story, leaned on her, made a deal–Parker in exchange for a light sentence. Maybe she’s on the square, but they put a tail on her. But there’s nothing. He can feel it–she pulled it off. Nobody followed her. They bought her story, hook line and sinker. She’s going to be valuable to him in more ways than one.
He goes to her room, and knocks on the door. And the moment his knuckles hit the wood, she belongs to him, and he to her. “For a while” turns out to mean “Until one or both of us is dead.” There’s a prettier way to phrase it, often heard at weddings, but somehow it doesn’t fit.
So that’s how Parker’s wild bachelor days came to an end, even though he and Claire never made it official (that would make no sense, since it would link Claire to him, and he needs her to stay clean with the law). And you can mourn that, or celebrate it, or just see it as something that really didn’t make much difference, since Claire only heavily factored into two or three more books, and was completely absent from quite a few of them.
But the point, as always, is that Parker isn’t like you and me. He doesn’t get involved the same way we do, and once involved, he stays involved–because he can’t be any other way. You don’t ask yourself “Does he love her?” because it’s a stupid question. She’s necessary to him. She’s part of him. Westlake said once that Parker has a very small circle, and once you’re inside it, you’re completely safe from him.
To those who want to see him as completely without conscience, without feelings towards others, this can seem like a cop-out, but I would say they’re projecting. Westlake never intended to make him a sociopath–why show guys like Mainzer (and believe it or not, there’s worse coming in future books), if not to say “This is a sociopath–Parker is something else.”
I’ve probably overworked the wolf angle, particularly since I’ve never seen a wild wolf in my life–but let me tell you a story about something I did witness, just a few years back. On the campus I work at, there was a pair of hawks. One day, the male ate an animal that had eaten rat poison, and he got very weak. He fell from the branch he was sitting on. Somebody saw him, and called the authorities. He couldn’t just be allowed to die underneath the sky he’d soared effortlessly through in life. This would be improper. So some official person came to pack him up in a box and take him away to die in a steel cage in a sterile room somewhere. This is what we humans like to call compassion.
The female (the larger of the two–all of two pounds), who had been keeping silent vigil over her mate, was having none of this. She drove away anyone who dared approach him. Reinforcements were called for–I counted six police vehicles, riot vans, big beefy 200+ pound cops in combat gear, with shields, batons–all to weather the unfettered fury of a two pound bird, protecting another bird who could not possibly be of any use to her now. But that didn’t matter. He was her mate. They were a pair. These are the rules.
They finally got past her, got him in the box and took him away. He died, of course. She never saw him again. She lived through the winter by herself. The spring came, and her hormones began to flow again as the days lengthened, and a new male presented himself to her. They raised more young together, and the years passed, and she finally disappeared. Nobody ever found out what happened to her. And a new female presented herself to the new male. And life went on. And, it should be mentioned, a whole lot of rats, chipmunks, squirrels and pigeons were captured, killed, and devoured, because that’s how predators make a living.
“What’s the moral?” you ask. “What’s a moral?” I ask.
And that’s what Richard Stark asks. And somehow, we never have an answer ready.
But the book I’m reviewing next week has a lot of answers–about Donald Westlake. And of course those answers just lead to more questions, but what else is new?
PS: Yes, that’s Mary Elizabeth Winstead’s picture up top, and yes she does look a lot like Robert McGinnis’ version of Claire, doesn’t she? Imaginary Casting Director–such a fun game.