Tag Archives: Claire Carroll

Review: Nobody Runs Forever

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When Parker got back to the lake a little before noon the next day, Claire was in the living room, reading a shelter magazine.  She tossed it aside, got to her feet, and said “Oh good, I was hoping you’d be home before lunch.  Take me someplace nice, with a terrace.  There won’t be many beautiful days like this left.”

“We can drive over to Pennsylvania,” he said.  There’s some places along the river there.”

She looked doubtful.  “With good food?”

“You want good food and a terrace?”

She laughed.  “You’re right.  Come with me while I look at my hair  We got a very strange wrong number this morning.”

“What kind of strange?”  He stood in the bedroom doorway and watched her poke at her trim auburn hair, which had been flawless when she started.

“He asked for somebody named Harbin.”

Thinking about it, it surprised him that there were always the same people in every job.

From The Man With the Getaway Face, by Richard Stark

In The Getaway Car, the thirteenth and penultimate section of that anthology of Westlake nonfiction is Jobs Never Pulled, which is a list of titles Westlake had considered but hadn’t used.  Many of them pretty awful–Cloak and Dagger, Clay Pigeon, Crossfire, Dark Angel.  Some are worse than that–and you will note, perhaps, that all those I mentioned have been used, though not by Westlake.  Perhaps not all when he first wrote them down (Crossfire was in theaters when Westlake was in his early teens), but good bet some of them had been.

He often fell back on well-worn clichés for his titles, which he would transform into ironic wordplay.  But some clichés are just too clichéd for that to work.  So he never used them, and just as well.

At the top of that list, there’s one title crossed out–the one you see above. Which had been the American release title of a Rod Taylor movie I haven’t seen yet (new DVD coming out in November, I’ve pre-ordered, can’t resist).  But which, going by every synopsis I’ve read, can’t be any kind of influence on the novel I’m about to review.  Maybe I’ll eat my words in November, but I’ve got to review this book now.

Pretty sure Mr. Westlake, like myself, was a fan of Mr. Taylor (I’ll explain why I think that some other time), but he only would have had to read the entertainment section of the paper back in ’68 to have seen that title.

The funny thing about titles is that they aren’t copyrighted.  In some cases they can be trademarked, but that takes a lot of lawyers.  You want to name your book Great Expectations, Moby Dick, or War and Peace?  Go ahead.  Only thing stopping you is the shadow you’ll be standing in. There have been a lot of books called The Hunter.  All but one have languished in obscurity.

Great cast, little-remembered film.  Bit of a dud when it came out, only available now under its original title, The High Commissioner. Doesn’t cast much of a shadow, does it?  But that American title is noir as noir gets. Fits Parker’s current situation (and his creator’s) like a well-worn black leather glove. That’s what I think happened here.

This is the largest panel in the Triptych (see previous article) going by word count. Almost three hundred pages in the first edition.  Longer than it needed to be, I think.  After a strong opening, it sags in the middle, then revives with a vengeance at the end.   Too much repetition of effort, not something you often find in Stark.  It’s what you might call a high-maintenance heist.

The grandeur of Plunder Squad and Butcher’s Moon notwithstanding, Stark, child of the gaudy paperbacks that he was, never fully adapted to the demands of the modern hardcover market–the pressure to crank out more pages to justify the cover price, be more ‘immersive.’  (Show me anything more immersive than those early Stark paperbacks, I dare you.)

If he had a big enough story to tell, not a problem, but this is more like half a story, with a completely different story sandwiched between.  Would have been better as a novella, leading into a shortish novel, leading into another novella–but who was publishing novellas then?  (Evan Hunter, but alas.)

No point crying over spilled ink, and I shouldn’t throw stones either, since I’m currently planning to make this review a three parter (the better to finish my final Stark review in one, since it wraps up the story this one kicks off).  Nobody runs forever; some bloggers come close.  However, I’d prefer none of the installments run over 6,000 words, so let’s emulate Stark at his best, and get to work.

The book begins in the middle of a card game, and we learn that poker can be a full contact sport in Parker’s world.

When he saw that the one called Harbin was wearing a wire, Parker said “Deal me out a hand,” and got to his feet.  They’d all come to this late-night meeting in suits and ties, traveling businessmen taking a break with a little seven-card stud.  Harbin, a nervous man unused to the dress shirt, kept twitching and moving around, bending forward to squint at his cards, and finally Parker, a quarter around the table to Harbin’s left, saw in the gap between shirt buttons that flash of clear tape holding the wire down.

As he walked around the table, Parker stripped off his own tie–dark blue with thin gold stripes–slid it into a double thickness, and arched it over Harbin’s head.  He drew the two ends through the loop and hanked back hard with his right hand as  his body pressed both Harbin and the chair he was in against the table, and his left hand reached over to rip open Harbin’s shirt.  The other five at the table, about to speak or move or react to what Parker was doing, stopped when they saw the wire taped to Harbin’s pale chest, the edge of the black metal box taped to his side.

(Loathe as I am to quarrel with such fine workmanship–Stark even describes the murder tie!–this story, as we shall see, takes place in the era of modern digital communications tech, as Parker shall have cause to lament.  It also takes place after 9/11, as we may infer from certain references later on.

Therefore, it is most unlikely even the most underfunded state police investigations unit–and that’s who was behind this–would have one of their informants wear a wire.  There were better ways to do it, long before then.  The convention lives on in crime fiction, and explaining how Parker somehow noticed a miniaturized listening device would have spoiled the rhythm of the scene. So, live with it.)

The rest of the chapter is the assembled felons (of whom Parker knows only Nick Dalesia, first and last seen in Butcher’s Moon) pretending to continue their game for the sake of whoever is listening in, while the guy who brought Harbin there to talk business,  red-bearded gent name of McWhitney, makes amends for his mistake by disposing of the body.  There was a potential job, involving a shipment of gold meant for people’s teeth, but that’s just as dead as Harbin now.

Parker leaves with Dalesia, who has an alternative score to offer.  A bank heist. Way out in New England.  Parker says what they could get from some piddling backwater bank wouldn’t be enough to justify the risk. Dalesia says they can get basically everything there, because it’s merging with a larger bank, and all the assets are going to be moved at one time.  They take out one armored car, and it’s all theirs.  He already knows the route.  It’ll be in a convoy of four, the other three running empty–they have to know which one has the cash, and that won’t be decided until the last possible minute.

This, as Parker quickly intuits, is where you need somebody on the inside, and Dalesia’s got somebody.  Or rather, an old friend of his does. Former security guard at the bank, named Jake Beckham. Got caught on the skim (hmm….)  Served time for it. Lives in a trailer park now, works at a cheap motel, wants a ticket to something better, figures this is it.

He arranges to meet them at his doctor’s office–doctor patient confidentiality means there can’t be any bugs there, and even if somebody was wearing a wire (or whatever they wear now), it would be inadmissible.  The doctor, Myron Madchen, is a mite bent himself, expects a nice taste of the proceeds, whatever they are–Jake’s not dumb enough to tell him, he’s not dumb enough to ask, but that doesn’t mean they aren’t both dumb about other things.

Jake’s been screwing the wife of the bank manager for years.  Daughter of the man who started the bank, she’s angry about the merger that will destroy her dad’s legacy, angry at her husband for tricking her into marrying him so he could take over.  She’s the one who can get them the info they need.  Parker smells emotion all over this one, and he doesn’t like it.  But so hard to find a lot of cash on the hoof these days.  This one could be worth millions.

The big problem right off is Jake wants to be part of the heist, and Parker and Dalesia both know he can’t be anywhere near it, has to have an titanium-clad alibi, because the cops will look at him hard.  He says Dr. Madchen will admit him to a local hospital, private room, and he can sneak out and meet them, then sneak back in afterwards.  No one will ever know!

 

Parker nixes that scenario, suggests an alternative–Jake’s on parole.  He breaks it by flying to Vegas.  He turns himself in there, says he was drunk, there was a woman.  They’ll have heard it a million times before.  Not like he killed anybody. They’ll lock him up, ship him back to New England, where he’ll be locked up some more.  He’ll be out again in a few weeks–after the job is done.

Jake hates every aspect of that idea.  Prison did not agree with him, or he with it. Plus he loved the idea of being in on the job himself (sticking it to the husband like the husband stuck it to him like he stuck it to the jerk’s wife).  He says he’ll go along with it, but without a whole lot of conviction.  Parker and Dalesia depart the trailer park with some trepidation.

As they drove, Dalesia said, “Jake’s problem is, he’s still part amateur himself.”

“He is,” Parker said.

“I like him, don’t get me wrong, but he didn’t start out to be one of us.  He started out to be a soldier boy, obey orders, get drunk, chase girls.  He got turned and turned, and he’s with us now because he’s got no place else to be.”

“He brings us a job,” Parker said, without emphasis, “he got us from the woman he’s in bed with.”

“I know.  It’s worse than a soap opera.  Do you think you got him to back out of this?”

“Maybe.  If not,” Parker said, “you’re the one he can finger.”

Dalesia laughed, but then he said, “No.  I put one in his head before that.”

“Then her head, too.”

Dalesia, considering, said, “You think so?”

“Never trust pillow talk.”

Dalesia thought about that for a while, then said, “We could just keep driving.”

“We could.”

“I got nothing else.”

“Neither of us has anything else.”

So they have to talk to the daughter.  Elaine Langen.  You might call her The Last Finger (except there’s one more, in the next book).  The first was named Alma, waitress at a New Jersey diner–where an armored car carrying a payroll would park, so the security men could eat.  Using a guy she’s sleeping with (named Skimm, hence the ‘hmmm’ ) to try and escape–and get even with the whole world.  She’s plotting a cross, which gets her killed, because Parker.

This finger was raised with money, isn’t planning any cross, just wants revenge on her dirtbag husband, with a bit of fuck-you money on the side–but otherwise it’s a lot like that.  Check out the descriptions.

First Alma:

She was in her mid-thirties, and her waitress-short hair, a mousy brown in color, was crimped all around in a frizzy permanent.  Her eyes were sullen and angry, glaring out at a world that had never given her her due.  She was heavily built, with broad hips and full bosom and thick legs, all of it solid and hard.  She had a double chin and a pulpy nose and a surprisingly good mouth, but the mouth was obscured by the hardness of the rest of her.

Now Elaine:

Well.  The first impression was of a slender, stylish well-put-together woman in her forties, but almost instantly the impression changed.  She wasn’t slender, she was bone thin, and inside the stylish clothes she walked with a graceless jitteriness, like someone whose medicine had been cut off too soon. Beneath the cowl of well-groomed ash-blond hair, her face was too thin, too sharp-featured, too deeply lined.  This could have made her look haggard; instead, it made her look mean.  From the evidence, what would have attracted her husband most would have been her father’s bank.

And now it begins to dawn on me at last that Stark knew all along what he was doing here, even if he didn’t know exactly where it was going.  As he had already done once, with the Dortmunder novella Walking Around Money, (credited to Westlake, but Stark was ghost-writing), he is consciously revising The Man With the Getaway Face.  Or, as Stark originally titled it, The Mask.

The second book in the series, the one that made it a series. The first that was really about a heist, that showed us what Parker was like when he wasn’t in mad wolf vendetta mode, the one that began to lay down the rules, the guidelines for what would come after.  The Hunter was the launchpad–The Mask the trajectory.  These last three books are the splash down.

You stay on the merry-go-round long enough, sooner or later you come back to where you started.  Dalesia, thin and dark, resembles Handy McKay quite a bit, has the same quiet competence and affable nature–less of his loyalty. It’s not that hard to see the parallels once you’re looking for them.  But see, that book came out more than forty years before this one, and the scenario can’t play out like last time.  The more things stay the same, the more they change.  No more Handy McKays in the world Parker lives in now.  Yeah, foreshadowing.

They tell Jake to tell Elaine to meet them at a service area on the MassPike.  There’s a cafeteria style restaurant there (a diner would be too on the nose).  She’s every bit as much of a handful as they thought, and even less of a professional than her lover.  Still, you have to give her points for brass.

She looked at the booth, looked at the privacy they’d arranged for her, and said “Thank you.”  She slid in and said, “Jake had to talk me into this, you know.”

Dalesia said, “Into this, or into the whole thing?”

Her laugh was brief and harsh.  “Into this,” she said.  “I had to talk him into the whole thing.  But I guess you two must agree with me.”

Parker said, “About what?”

“There was an old movie,” she said, “called, Nice Little Bank That Should be Robbed.”

Dalesia laughed and said, “That’s what we got here, huh?”  In the movie, did they get away with it?”

“I never saw the movie,” she said.  “I just noticed the title, in a TV listing.  It struck me.”

“Probably,” Dalesia said, “being a movie, they didn’t get away with it.  Movies are very unrealistic that way.”

She seemed amused by him.  “Oh? Do bank robbers usually get away with it?”

Well yes, Dalesia explains–in that the phrase literally refers to the robbers getting the cash away from the bank, and bank employees are instructed to let them do precisely that, so they pretty much always ‘get away with it.’  It’s the aftermath that tells the tale–if the robbers are stupid, as is often the case, they get caught or killed later on–if they’re smart, they may ‘get away with it’ in the more expansive sense of remaining alive and free and spending the money–perhaps multiple times.  But not too many.  Nobody runs forever.

(And yes, that’s a real movie title Elaine references, minus a prefatory article of speech, and I haven’t seen it either, but now I really want to, c’mon TCM.  As to whether they get away with it–yes and no.  Basically, the movie is making the same point as Dalesia.  Don’t go to the well too many times.)

It’s arranged that she’ll fax them the day of the big money move as soon as she knows it, using a fax machine at the bank itself.  The position of the money car is more time sensitive, and turns out the only way this can be worked is for her to go there that night, watch to see them loaded up, then drive to a pre-arranged intersection and give them the number of the car.  It won’t be the first or last of the four, she knows that already, but that isn’t enough.

Her only contribution to this job is information, but it’s an indispensable contribution. If they could get rid of Jake altogether, the job would work a lot better.  His relationship with both Dalesia and Elaine makes that impossible.  She’s not too enthused about his breaking parole to establish an alibi–mainly because she knows how much he hated prison.  But she accepts the necessity of his having an unbreakable alibi, in order for suspicion not to fall on her as well.

She tries not to show much bothered she is by their conviction that her husband knew about the affair with Jake all along.  She says she knows her husband, would know if he knew about her and Jake.  Her husband’s name is Jack.  Do I really have to spell out the implicit pun here?  Point is, much as she may think she is above suspicion, nobody would ever accuse the old man’s daughter, she better take care to establish an alibi for herself as well, call her husband the minute she gets home that night.

Frowning, she said, “You really believe it, don’t you?  That Jack will suspect me.”

“Whether he does or not,” Parker said, “do you like to take risks?”

“To wind up in jail, you mean?” Her mouth twisted.  “Prison orange is not my color.”

Really?  I’ve heard it’s the new black.  Parker notices she’s got a gun in her purse, which she’s very defensive about (there’s a lot of that going around lately, can’t imagine why). She kids on the square about how they’re playing good cop/bad cop, complains they never even offered to buy her a cup of coffee, and departs.  Leaving them less than reassured of her soundness, but they still have nothing else.

Parker goes back to Claire in New Jersey, they go swimming together in Colliver Pond, in the warm September weather, she’s wearing a bright blue bikini, and let’s just say Parker has a lot to lose here.  Then again, women like Claire come with a certain amount of overhead built in, even if they’re happy with a small house on a lake in Northwestern Jersey that they have to vacate during the summer, when it gets all touristy.  Anyway, Parker has to work whether he’s got a woman or not.

She tells him the bank account is getting low, so he goes to his bank–caches of cash, concealed in little hidey-holes he’s made inside surrounding vacation cottages, that he can easily access when they are unoccupied, which is most of the time he and Claire are in residence there.  It’s a neat system.  No interest accruing, to be sure.  But you know, with the market so volatile of late, call it a hedge fund.  Perhaps in actual hedges, at times.

He comes back to the house, and Dalesia left a message to call–bad news.  Jake went to his scheduled appointment with his parole officer like a lamb.  They head back to Massachusetts to see if the lamb needs slaughtering.

They go to the trailer park this time, never mind the doctor.  Barge right in.  Jake tells them he knows what they’re going to say.  Parker says he was going to say the job works just as well if Jake is dead.  Dalesia, the good cop, is in general agreement with this sentiment, with the difference that he feels personally let down by his old camping buddy.

Jake’s rattled, but sticks to his guns–he can’t do another minute of time.  He won’t.  He came up with a better version of his medical alibi.  Madchen will diagnose him with stomach problems, he’ll be in a hospital ward, not a private room, and he agrees he can’t sneak out to participate in the heist.  He’s already talked to his parole officer about it–meaning that it’s a fait accompli.  And if they kill him, Elaine will be too scared to play ball.  Not liking it one bit, Parker gives in.

Back to Claire again, leading to the exchange you see up top.  Which I’ve found interesting for a while now, for two reasons.  Reason the First: Would Parker know or care what constitutes good food?  I guess he knows the difference between rare and burned.  It seems more like a Westlake Foodie thing.  Away from major cities, you pretty much do have to choose between classy ambience and good food.  Even in major cities, you have to look pretty hard and pay through the nose to get both.

Reason the Second: Claire’s a redhead?  She was introduced in the ninth book of the series.  This is the twenty-second.  First time we’ve ever been told what color hair she has.  She was depicted on the cover of three of the four Gold medal originals, each one drawn by Robert E. McGinnis.

I’ve always preferred the brunette.  But that’s just McGinnis, perhaps going with his personal preference of the moment, given no visual cue in the books–or else he just assumes that if a woman has red or yellow hair–in a crime novel–you mention it.  For whatever reason, his final take on Claire is a strawberry blonde.  And is being pawed by somebody we assume is Parker (though it could be one of her abductors), who looks an awful lot like a younger version of McGinnis himself.

I could probably spend a good five thousand words just speculating on Westlake’s reasons for telling us what previously only Parker and Claire’s hairdresser knew for sure.  Five thousand wasted words, because in the final novel of the Triptych, which takes place just a few weeks later, she’s suddenly ash blonde, and Parker doesn’t say one word about that when he sees her.  Okay, it’s Parker, why would he care, wolves being colorblind and all.

Is Stark messing with the heads of his faithful longtime readers?  Westlake, in truth, never cared all that much about matters follicular himself–to the point of sometimes describing this or that character as having ‘hair-colored’ hair.  He doubtless had been asked by some readers whether Claire was blonde or brunette, as most of his female love interests had been in the past. Only redhead I can think of offhand in the Westlake canon is Jigger Jackson, from the ill-starred Who Stole Sassi Manoon?

I saw one exchange where a fan asked Westlake why Parker had started out as a blonde, then had dark hair–but that reader was just responding to the early cover art, since none of the books ever described Parker’s coif that way–it did seem to get darker over time.  As did that of the author himself.  Childhood photos of him show a tow-headed boy, adult photos show a man with hair both dark and rapidly thinning –it’s an Irish thing, as me and one of my sisters can attest–we were both born blondes.  We didn’t stay blonde.  (Maybe because we got smarter.)  I went from blonde to brown to salt & pepper.  Sis was a redhead by choice, last I saw her.  It’s just hair.

Point is, by starting to define Claire a bit more, after decades of letting us (and the cover artists) imagine her, Stark is making her less of an ideal.  She’s going to start coming into focus more and more during this and the final book–leading to some questions about the long-term stability of her arrangement with Parker.  She’s now freely discussing a job with him, before it’s even pulled–she never used to want to hear a word about what Parker did to earn their living.  But that’s been changing for some time now.  Like everything else in Parker’s world.  Except Parker himself.  He adapts.  It’s not the same thing.

The third thing about that scene with Claire is the important thing–the guy who called looking for Harbin.  Who is dead, you should recall.  Parker does.  Not long after that, the guy calls again.

“I’m looking for Harbin.”  The voice was gravelly and a little false; not as though he was trying to sound tougher, but softer.

“Which Harbin would that be?”

“The Harbin from Cincinnati.”

“Don’t know the guy, sorry.”

“Hey, wait a minute, I think you can help me.”

“I don’t.”

“From your phone number, I got a pretty good idea of your general geographical location.  I can get up into that northwest corner of New Jersey in, say, an hour.  Give me directions to your place, we can talk it over.”

“There’s nothing to talk about.”

“I just don’t want to leave a stone unturned here,” said the gravelly voice, sliding back and forth between menace and gentleness.  “I’m the kind of guy, I’m dogged, I just keep coming.”

People who tell Parker they know where he lives tend to end up going, but there’s no point telling this guy that.  He obviously knows he’s living life dangerously.  He plays a little game of tag, agreeing to meet the guy at a gas station by the Delaware Water Gap, having no intention of keeping the appointment, not expecting the mystery caller to do so either, but figuring he can spot the dark red Chevy Suburban the guy said he was driving.  (Parker’s driving a Lexus himself, but he didn’t mention that over the phone.)

Whoever is behind this, they know about surveillance.  Parker never sees the Suburban, but he still gets followed back home–spots the tail, black Honda, tall good looking blonde woman inside.  Like the wolf he is, he tries to double back, lead them away from the den, from his mate, but no good.  He finally parks, and waits for the mystery caller to identify himself.

Parker’s heeled, Beretta Jetfire .25, a handgun smaller than most hands (but look at all the movies it’s had cameos in).  Parker never did go in for ostentation much. Nor has he ever been much inclined to mince words.

Parker showed him the Beretta.  “One step back; I don’t want blood on the car.”

The guy took the step back, but he also gave a surprised laugh and stuck his hands up in the referee’s time-out signal, saying, “Hold on, pal, it’s too late for that.”

Too late?  Parker rested the Beretta on the windowsill, his eyes on the other’s eyes and hands, and waited.

The guy nodded toward the supermarket.  “Sandra’s already been on the horn with the DMV.  Claire Willis, East Shore Road, Colliver’s Pond, New Jersey Oh-eight-nine-eight-nine.  Why don’t you wanna have a nice little talk?”

“You’re not law,” Parker said.

The guy shook his head.  “Never said I was.”

Being with a partner, running a license through Motor Vehicles, having all the time in the world for a stakeout, not particularly impressed by the sight of a handgun.  “You’re a bounty hunter.”

“You got it in one, my friend,” the guy said, grinning, proud of either himself or Parker.  “If you’re not gonna blow my head off, I can reach in my jacket pocket for my card case, give you my card.”

“Go ahead.”

“Not that a Beretta like that’s gonna blow anybody’s head off, the guy said, reaching into his jacket, coming out with a card case.  “Though it would make a dent, I give you that.”

Roy Keenan Associates.  Sandra’s the associate, and Roy mentions she packs a S&W 357.  Parker could try getting her too, with his dinky little rod, but wouldn’t it be easier to talk?

There’s a big government reward out on Harbin, which Keenan can collect just as well by proving Harbin’s dead.  We still do that dead or alive thing?  I thought that was just Steve McQueen.  Googled around, seems to be a bit of a grey area–you can’t shoot the guy in the back and drag him in, no legalized murder, but you can bring in a dead body to collect, as long as you didn’t plug the guy in the back. If he resists, and you shoot him, you get paid.  Somebody else shoots him and you dig him up, same deal.  Keenan would take that deal all day long.

Keenan’s got Dalesia’s name as well, and perhaps a few other names from that ill-fated card game the book began with.  He doesn’t know much of anything else–like Parker strangling Harbin with his tie–or he wouldn’t be this close.  He tells Parker he’s not giving up until he finds Harbin, or Harbin’s corpse.  Parker figures there’s no point mentioning the third option and leaves.

He calls Dalesia, to warn him, only to hear yet more bad news.  Jake’s been shot in the leg.  He’s in the hospital, which was part of the plan, but there’s cops asking him questions, which wasn’t.  One of those cops is also a good-looking blonde, who we’ll meet next week.  See, you mention a woman being blonde in a crime  novel.  There’s three blondes in this one.  All of them trouble.  Well, that’s a crime fiction thing too.

That finishes Part One.  We’re over 5,000 words.  I actually have enough cover images to make this a four-parter, if I want.  Nobody runs forever, you say?  Try and stop me, coppers!

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Filed under Donald Westlake novels, Parker Novels, Richard Stark

Review: The Rare Coin Score, Part 2

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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.

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Filed under Donald Westlake novels, Parker Novels

Review: The Rare Coin Score

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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–

fmo_67_dec_2fmo_68_jul_3

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(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.

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Filed under Donald Westlake novels, Parker Novels