Tag Archives: Gold Medal Books

Review:The Duplicate Keys, Part 2–Port of Rabe

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This began Rabe’s first effort to develop a series character, beginning with a book called Dig My Grave Deep, which is merely a second-rate gloss of Hammett’s The Glass Key, without Hammett’s psychological accuracy and without Rabe’s own precision and clarity.  The book flounders and drifts and postures.  The writing is tired and portentous, the characters thinner versions of Hammett’s. The Ned Beaumont character is called Daniel Port, and at the end he leaves town in a final paragraph that demonstrates how sloppy Rabe could get when he wasn’t paying attention: “Port picked up his suitcases and went the other way.  By the time it was full dawn, he had exchanged his New York ticket for one that went the other way.”

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Why would anyone ever want to read a book called Kill the Boss Goodbye? And yet, Kill the Boss Goodbye is one of the most purely interesting crime novels ever written.

Here’s the setup: Tom Fell runs the gambling in San Pietro, a California town of three hundred thousand people.  He’s been away on “vacation” for a while, and an assistant, Pander, is scheming to take over. The big bosses in Los Angeles have decided to let nature take its course; if Pander’s good enough to beat Fell, the territory is his.  Only Fell’s trusted assistant, Cripp (for “cripple”), knows the truth, that Fell is in a sanitarium recovering from a nervous breakdown.  Cripp warns Fell that he must come back or lose everything.  The psychiatrist, Dr. Emilson, tells him he isn’t ready to return to his normal life.  Fell suffers from a manic neurosis, and if he allows himself to become overly emotional, he could snap into true psychosis.  But Fell has no choice; he goes back to San Pietro to fight Pander.

This is a wonderful variant on a story as old as the Bible: Fell gains the world and loses his mind.

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And next, published in May of 1960, Rabe’s sixteenth Gold Medal novel in exactly five years, was Murder Me For Nickels, yet another change of pace, absolutely unlike anything that he had done before.  Told in first person by Jack St. Louis, right-hand man of Walter Lippit, the local jukebox king, Murder Me For Nickels is as sprightly and glib as My Lovely Executioner was depressed and glum.  It has a lovely opening sentence, “Walter Lippit makes music all over town,” and is chipper and funny all the way through.

All three passages clipped from the essay Peter Rabe, written by Donald E. Westlake in the late 80’s, now collected in The Getaway Car.  

I’ve no idea how many mystery authors have rewritten The Glass Key over the years, but I’m pretty sure only Peter Rabe rewrote it three times.  Westlake easily spotted the first duplicate key, as you can see up top, and hated it.  He probably saw Rabe had returned to that well twice more, but liked those books too much to reduce them to mere ‘glosses’, and so held his critical tongue.

I’d say his critiques of Rabe’s first Daniel Port novel could be applied to the Hammett novel Rabe was copying.  Hammett was the one crime writer Westlake could not critique incisively, or perhaps at all.  Too close.  Too personal.  Like a bishop giving God a bad review.

I don’t think Rabe would have minded if Westlake had said that he’d rewritten The Glass Key three times (Westlake rewrote it once, and we’ll get to that)–he made it known that he’d appreciated Westlake’s pans as much as his plaudits, since the pans proved the plaudits were sincere.  Nor was Westlake disparaging him by seeing where his influences lay.  All writers begin, to some extent, by copying those they admire. But with repeated effort, copies may take on a life of their own and even surpass the original, in some respects at least.

In a December 1986 letter to Rabe, that was also published in The Getaway Car, Westlake made no bones about his debt to the older wordsmith, who he had a lot of questions for, preparatory to writing that essay.  They had never met or corresponded, and not presuming Rabe would have heard of him, he explained that he’d written a number of books under the name Richard Stark, and they had been stylistically influenced by Rabe’s work in the 50’s and early 60’s. He went so far as to say he’d drained Rabe’s blood.

(Rabe’s first marriage was to a woman named Claire Frederickson, and I wish I could write Westlake now to ask him if that’s a coincidence.  To which Rabe, a professor of psychology, therefore a student of Freud, would probably say there’s no such thing.)

My feeling about all the duplicate keys, good bad and indifferent, is that they are not mere copies of the original.  (A gloss is, after all, a commentary on a previous text, and they have their place in literature).  They are, I believe, attempts to fix the problems in Hammett’s novel–but also to use the same basic story to get some different points across.

Nothing new about that. Many ancient myths–such as that of the Pandavas in The Mahabarata–have been retold many times over the centuries, and each new telling has its own spin and sensibility.  You can’t own a story, no matter what copyright law says (for which you should probably ask a copyright lawyer).  You own the specific way you told that story.

The same is true, incidentally, of the gospels, which is why it’s stupid to try and meld them together into some cacophonous concordance for tawdry reasons of dogma.  Mark does not agree with Matthew does not agree with Luke and nobody agrees with John. You can admire a book and still want to turn it on its head, make it tell your truth.

A look at Rabe’s overall body of work shows that he was interested in depicting ambitious men, often trying to rise to the top of some criminal empire, and ultimately falling prey to hubris, and the emotional conflicts it gives rise to.  The hunger for success at war with the need for love.  Identity crises that, more often than not, end tragically.

But something about The Glass Key interested him–suppose the man wasn’t that ambitious?  Suppose he didn’t want power?  Suppose he wanted to walk away from it all? Suppose he was undyingly loyal to the man he worked for, but had hitched his wagon to a falling star?  Suppose he was just somebody who enjoyed the daily scrum of a semi-licit business, but felt like maybe it was time to go fully legit?  All these things are suggested in Hammett’s book.  None are fully spelled out.  The Glass Key is ultimately about a friendship that founders.  There are other things to say with the underlying structure of the narrative.

And maybe now I better get to laying out what they are, because reviewing three novels in one article smacks of hubris.  Let’s start with the book Westlake hated, that I think he was a little unfair towards, but you’re cruising for a critical bruising when the title of said book is–

Dig My Grave Deep:

“Tell me again, Danny.”

“I want out, that’s all.” Port tried to hold his temper, but it didn’t work. “I want out because I learned all there was: there’s a deal, and a deal to match that one, and the next day the same thing and the same faces and you spit at one guy and tip your hat to another, because one belongs here and the other one over there, and, hell, don’t upset the organization whatever you do, because we all got to stick together so we don’t get the shaft from some unexpected source. Right, Max? Hang together because it’s too scary to hang alone. Well? Did I say something new? Something I didn’t tell you before?”

“Nothing new.” Stoker ran one hand over his face. “I knew this before you came along.” He looked at the window and said, “That’s why I’m here till I kick off.”

The only sound was Stoker’s careful breathing and Port’s careful shifting of his feet. Then Port said, “Not for me.”

Series characters are good business for a genre author (repeat business is always good), but it’s hard to strike a good balance with them–you can end up telling the same story over and over or you can be all over the place, seeking ever stranger variations on a theme, thus losing that sense of continuity that makes the form rewarding.  And most significantly, in a genre crammed with surly sleuths, how do you stand out from the herd?

With a peripatetic former criminal forced to play roving detective, was Rabe’s idea–lifted from Hammett–continuing, in effect, the saga Hammett hinted at with Ned Beaumont leaving the town he’d helped corrupt with a girl who had despised him for it; never looking back, but presumably not settling down and becoming a solid citizen, because that isn’t his nature.

(It should be noted, Hammett only ever wrote one story about Ned Beaumont.  There may have been reasons for that unconnected to his writer’s block. Some characters just don’t have a second act.  Most of them, really.  Imagine a series of whaling novels about Ishmael.  And really, there was no need for us to ever hear from Huck Finn again.)

Rabe seemed to think it was worth trying–possible Gold Medal suggested it to him after he completed the first Daniel Port book, and he figured ‘what the hell?’  (They had the best pay rates in the business.)  This would track very nicely with the origins of many other series characters, including one we’ve spent some time discussing here.  But Port is no Parker–even though he may have influenced Parker, if largely in a negative sense.  What not to do.

Whether he’d planned it this way or not, Rabe cranked out five increasingly aimless sequels to the first Port book, and the last is the only one Westlake liked.  I haven’t reread it–I agree it’s better written than most, and the girl is really something, but I remember some serious problems with it–it’s set in Latin America, like many of Westlake’s novels (but none of his best ones).

So maybe just to be contrary (since even I don’t think Mr. Westlake is always right), I’m going to say the first novel is best.  Because it’s the one story this glossed-up Ned Beaumont  was designed for.  In the five subsequent entries, he’s a shark out of water, flopping around on dry land, and it’s every bit as ungainly as it sounds.  One character in search of a point.

Not as subversive a rewrite as Wade Miller’s, and unlike James M. Cain’s, it sticks very close to the main outline of the original, while streamlining it a lot–but I think it does fix at least some of the problems in Hammett’s narrative–and his hero.  A tighter piece of work, with all the sex and violence and cutting to the chase one expects from a Gold Medal p.o.–but  it does somehow lack conviction.  Particularly the ending (of course I felt the same way about Hammett’s ending).

(And now I’m wondering–if Gold Medal did convince Rabe to bring Port back, did he have to rejigger the finish?  His protagonists don’t generally get happy endings–happy being a very relative term in this sub-genre, but I’d almost rather be a character in a Kafka story than a Rabe novel.  Just because Beaumont walks away in one piece doesn’t mean Port originally did, since this is a revisionist take on the story.  Westlake knew all about that kind of thing–we owe twenty-three of the twenty-four Parker novels to an editor at Pocket Books issuing a reprieve for the heartless heister.)

Daniel Port doesn’t like his career path anymore.  Maybe he never did.  His job is to solve problems for his aging mentor, named Stoker, the boss of Ward 9, in an unnamed town somewhere in the midwest.  It’s not really clear what this outfit does, other than fix elections–some gambling here, a little prostitution there, political graft whenever. There’s a reform party–but they’re crooks as well.  Using the press to undermine Stoker and get their own guys in (again, straight from The Glass Key.)

The Stoker mob is connected to organized crime nationwide, and they’ve got a lot of well-armed tough-talking hoods–and as you’d expect in a Glass Key rewrite, they’ve got local competition looking to take over.  Uneasy hangs the head and all.  Stoker needs his errant knight to stay in the game, if he’s going to hang onto his throne.  But Port’s had enough of being a vassal, and he doesn’t care to be king himself after Stoker dies.

They’re close–not brothers from different mothers, like Beaumont and Madvig–more like Stoker’s a surrogate dad for Port, who lost his younger brother to the organization–kid followed Port into the Stoker mob, after they did their stint, and somehow managed to catch a bullet after surviving WWII.  Port doesn’t blame Stoker, of course–he blames himself.  He’s one of those crooks with a conscience you meet in crime fiction (maybe not so often in reality).

And he’s got a caretaker complex.  He feels responsible for people he likes, will go to extraordinary lengths to help them, a theme that resonates across the entire series.  Knowing this about his protege, Stoker plays Port like a harp–if he can’t bribe or intimidate him into staying, he can guilt him into it. Port knows what Stoker is doing, but feels like he’s got to pay off a debt of honor he doesn’t really owe.

There’s a move from the city to demolish Ward 9 and replace it with new housing–this would effectively destroy Stoker’s power base, leaving him vulnerable to the opposition.  Port agrees to fix that problem prior to going.  While Stoker’s other  main lieutenant, a mean-spirited mediocrity named Fries (don’t even say it), just keeps repeating that nobody leaves, unless it’s feet-first.  His idea is that Port serves him after Stoker croaks (bad heart) and he’ll kill Port once he’s not needed anymore.  Port’s not real thrilled with the company retirement package.

One thing wrong about Hammett’s version of the story is that Madvig is too much of a boy scout, trusts Beaumont 110%, even when Ned pretends for a moment to be going over to the other side.  (Guys that trusting don’t survive long as crime bosses.)  When Stoker finds out Port was grabbed by the other side in his town, his immediate assumption (helped along by Fries) is that Port has turned traitor.  They were trying to turn him, absolutely–but Port is done with the whole dirty business.  But he still nearly gets clipped, right then and there, before he talks his way out of it (shades of Devil On Two Sticks, which you can bet Rabe read avidly).

So it all plays along much like Hammett’s story, but Port isn’t much like Beaumont.  He’s a lot more serious, he doesn’t gamble (except with his life), he’s not solving any murder mysteries (not a required component of the genre in a Gold Medal crime novel), and he’s got better taste in women.

He meets this girl, Shelly, the dark and lovely daughter of Mexican immigrants, whose younger brother Ramon (who she raised herself, since the parents were always working) is also tied up with the Stoker bunch–ambitious punk, probably headed for an early grave, just like Port’s brother, and of course Port’s guilty about that too, but there’s no reasoning with the guy, and Port has his own problems.

Port plants Ramon as a gardener (heh) at the home of a guy named Bellamy,  leader of the corrupt Reform party, to find out what they’re planning, and she’s mad at Port about that, but then she winds up there as a maid herself, getting pawed over by the old lech, and Port’s mad about that.  He grabs her, all caveman-like, throws her in his great new car Stoker gave him, in her skimpy domestic attire, and you’ve read Gold Medal novels before, right?

“Safe and prim as hell, right? What is it, Shelly, afraid I’m going to rape you?”

“You know you can’t! You know…”

“No. As long as there’s you and Nino I wouldn’t think of it. You’re not even here! And all you ever feel is sisterly love, isn’t it?”

She sat still, and Port started to think she was going to let it pass, when she suddenly swung out her arm and cracked the back of her hand into his face.

He jammed on the brake. At first he thought he was going to laugh but then felt himself getting furious.

“Stop the car,” she said. She sat crouched in the seat, and she had one of her shoes in her hand, holding it so the heel made a hammer.

Then she said again, “Stop the car and let me out!”

Port made a fast turn into a dirt lane and stopped the car. He was out before Shelly had found her balance.

The air was rainy and cool, with a strong leaf odor out of the woods next to the road, and while Port stood there, breathing it, he wondered whether she’d ever come out. Her teeth showed like an animal’s, and when she stood in the road she stopped to kick off the other shoe and then didn’t wait any longer. She didn’t wait for him to move, but came at him.

He hadn’t figured she was very strong or as determined as she turned out to be, but before he got the shoe out of her hand she had clipped him hard over the ear, had tried to knee him, and then bit his neck. He had to let go of her to get a good grip, and that’s when he stopped fighting her off. He got a hold on her that changed the whole thing, except that Shelly wouldn’t give in.

The next time she tried to knee him Port lost his temper. He picked her up, tossed her over the ditch, and was next to her when she jumped up. There was one heated look between them and then the front of her dress came apart in one loud rip. She froze, but Port wasn’t through. He reached out and tore the rest she had on, and when she tried to free her arm to claw him, he yanked it all down.

He was holding her as if she might get away long after Shelly had no such thought.

He had taken his jacket off and Shelly was wearing it, and when she had reached for the cigarette he had lit for her she left the jacket the way it had fallen because they were still far out of town. Port was surprised to see how far they had come.

She said, “Your place, or mine, Daniel?”

“Mine’s more private.”

“But mine is closer.”

“And I got better accommodations.”

“Except my clothes are at home.”

He shook his head sadly and kept on driving….

They keep on driving at Port’s apartment for several days, while Stoker frets and worries.  In fact, Port has done a good job thwarting the enemy plans, has found a cunning legal loophole to keep the slum clearance from happening, which almost amounts to a good deed (it’s not designed to benefit anybody but the people planning it–it’ll just displace the bluecollars from the only homes they can afford to live in, fragment their community, destroy it.  This was, you should remember, the era of Robert Moses.)

He’s found the weak spots in the opposition’s armor, their corrupt little secrets, and the only problem (as Stoker reminds him) is that only Port is smart and strong enough to pull the scheme off.  Fries hasn’t got a clue.

And Port still doesn’t have a workable exit strategy, but he’s got the girl he means to exit with.  He takes her shopping, then escorts her (the former domestic) to the big social event at Bellamys house.  This after half-killing Bellamy earlier that day, when he and his hoodlums tried to either turn Port or kill him.  (Basically non-stop violence, in this and all the other Ports, but again, you’ve read Gold Medal novels before.)

He’s there to show solidarity with Stoker, but it’s just not going to work–Stoker has a point, you’re either in or out, and Port’s trying to have it both ways.  Port finally realizes it won’t work, that he’s got to cut the cord, or accept his fate.  He and Stoker have their final face-off there–no matter what loyalty he may feel to his mentor, he’s got to be loyal to himself first.  Even if it kills him.  Even if it kills Stoker.  And it does.

“Face the facts, Danny. I won’t be here much longer. Which way do you want it: With Fries under you, or you under Fries?”

Port felt the rage grow, and he couldn’t stop it this time. “To me, that’s not even a choice.”

“There’s another one. The one I told you at first.”

Stoker saw the color come into Port’s face, a thing he had never seen, and like an infection he felt his own face become glutted with blood, the heart-pound loud in his ears, and he shouted, “Take it or leave it! I’m through begging you! Take it or leave it, and I don’t give one stinking damn!”

Port’s voice came out hoarse. He controlled its strength but no longer anything else. “You go to hell!”

“Wha—” “If I can’t get rid of you and the air you breathe, you and the Frieses and Bellamys and the big shots with small heads and the small shots with big heads, then I’d sooner crap out!”

“I’ll see you will!”

“Try it, Stoker. Try stopping me now!”

What stops, as if Port’s rage alone had done it, is Stoker’s tired old heart. Cracks his head on the stone hearth going down.  Guess who the Reform mobsters try to hang a murder rap on?  But Port gets out from under it with his accustomed eptitude, and informs them all–both mobs–that now he’s got the information needed to take them all down. Names, dates, places.  The works.  He’s leaving town, for good, and none of them better get in his way.

It’s the old fail-safe plot device (not sure how old in 1956).  He’s got it set up so that if he dies–for any reason–the information goes to the press and the law.  As a final parting shot, he gives the old Reform leader–the one who actually meant it, but got forced out by Bellamy–just enough intel to burn Bellamy, and regain control of the party.

This Samson’s bringing the whole temple down–but not before he leaves it.  With his girl.  Well, that doesn’t pan out, because the resentful Ramon (beaten to a pulp by the Reform thugs, and blaming Port for it) told Shelly Port was dead, and she left town herself, headed for the west coast.  Port was going to New York (like Beaumont), but he changes his ticket and goes the other way.  Doesn’t discourage easily.

And I wish Rabe had left it there, with the knight errant of noir, his liege lord no longer impeding him, riding out to find his lady love. For all the lack of conviction I lamented above, it’s still a fairly strong ending to a book that is hit or miss all the way through– though full of interesting minor characters, including a nerveless gunsel (in the sense he doesn’t process pain the way normal people do) and a hooker with a heart of brass, who may well end up with the gunsel, we never find out.  I agree with Westlake that it’s not as good as Hammett’s book; except in the ways that it’s better.

Westlake, ever the word nerd, was nitpicking about the repetitive language at the end, which I’d say Rabe used on purpose–Daniel Port always goes the other way.  You can say it doesn’t work, but no reason to assume he was being careless.  I like it better than Hammett’s ending for Beaumont, which just sort of hangs there, like a bad joke.

We never see or hear about Shelly in the later books–Port either couldn’t find her, or she just figured she’d had enough.  Different sexy broad each book–have to keep the roving hero single.  He’s settled down with another luscious Latina by the end, south of the border, but he’s too far out of his element there–the book isn’t really about him, he’s just kibbitzing in someone else’s story.  Rabe’s acknowledgement, perhaps, that Port wasn’t suited for a series, and then the series ended.

Rabe experimented with different styles, different types of story (as Westlake later did with Grofield, not a lot more successfully)  but all Port really has, as a character, is the caretaker thing (motivation to keep sticking his neck out), the not wanting or needing a boss or steady job thing (keep him rootless, searching), the eye for the ladies thing (so horny guys will keep buying the books), and this low tuneless whistle thing he does when he’s feeling pensive (because ya gotta have a gimmick).

Once his major conflict is resolved, at the end of this book, there’s just not enough left to hang a series on.  Which is why I say this book is the best of the six, since at least he does have the conflict here, even if it’s borrowed from Ned Beaumont.  And I’ve got two more books to cover, so that’s more than enough about Daniel Port.

Even though in some ways I find this a more enjoyable and focused novel than the mordantly messy original that inspired it, even though I find it handles many of the story ideas more adeptly (and sure as hell has the better sex scenes), I can’t say I think it’s as good as Hammett’s book.  Rabe wouldn’t have thought so either.  And there were other variations he had in mind, so at around the same time as he wrote this one (before?  after?  simultaneously?), he came up with a nigh-Shakespearean syndicate saga, entitled–

Kill The Boss Goodbye:

“Look, Jordan,” said Dr. Emilson. “If Fell should leave now, that might be all he needed to go over the brink.”

Cripp sat up. He was finally getting straight answers.

“That’s my professional guess,” said Emilson, “and it’s enough to warn you.”

“Warn me?”

“Did you ever hear of a psychosis?”

It made Cripp think of padded cells and children’s games for grown men. It made him think of Fell, whom he had known for over ten years. Fell had picked him up in New York, where Cripp was making pocket money in a cheap sideshow at Coney Island. The Brain Boy with the Mighty Memory. Tell the kid the year and date of your birthday, mister, and he’ll give you the day of the week. And now the most astounding feat ever performed! Read any sentence from this paper, mister, this morning’s paper, and the kid will tell you what the rest of the paragraph is. This morning’s paper, mister, the kid’s read it once – and Fell had picked him up after the show, kept him with him ever since. A mighty memory was quite a boon in Fell’s racket. No bookkeeping, no double checks on collections, no time wasted on figuring odds and percentages. Cripp did it all in his head. He and Fell weren’t friends, or even buddies, but whatever they had between them was as close a thing as Cripp ever had with anyone. And Cripp made it the only attachment there was. It was easier that way.

“Did you ever hear of a psychosis?” Emilson had said, and right then all Cripp knew was that Fell was not like those men playing children’s games or like somebody in a padded cell. Fell was strong, always right, generous because he was big; and he could make things sure because he was always sure himself. Fell had two legs that gave him a straight, even walk. Fell was –

“Mr. Jordan, I asked you a question.”

Rabe’s other two duplicates were not so much revisions of Hammett’s story as fresh takes, inspired by it, but not following the template too closely, which explains Westlake’s (justly) higher regard for them.

He talks about this one as if Rabe wrote it after his other 1956 novel (the one we just covered), and I don’t know if that’s based on his correspondence with Rabe, or if he just assumed.  I’ll just assume myself, because this is a better book–better than the book about Port, or the one about Beaumont.  Better than 99% of 50’s crime novels.

But it’s also a book that reverses the polarity, in some intriguing ways–the Beaumont stand-in isn’t looking to leave, ever.  He’s not so much loyal to the Madvig in his life as welded to him–unable to imagine life without him–content to be second banana, no agenda of his own.  Not even a love interest, which I assure you is quite unique among the duplicate keys.  There’s sex, because Gold Medal, but none for him.

His name is Cripp–well, that’s what they call him, because he’s got a withered leg, which he’s compensated for with a remarkable memory and an overdeveloped upper body.  He’s actually the one who pulls the boss back into the game.  And the boss is, to coin a vulgarism, nutty as a fruitcake, magnificently and tragically so as Lear.  It’s a tragedy Robert Ryan didn’t get to play him.  (maybe Kirk  Douglas for Cripp, but they’d have had to beef the role up, add a love interest, because Kirk Douglas.)

The story isn’t about Cripp.  He’s merely the fool to this mobbed-up Lear, head of the local gambling syndicate in some inland California town with a racetrack and a police force that looks the other way when properly greased.

The weakness Fell’s showing is mental–or really, emotional.  He’s had a nervous breakdown, and he’s been recovering at a sanitarium, and you read Westlake’s synopsis.  But no synopsis can ever prepare you for what follows.  Because Tom Fell is nothing if not magnificent in his burgeoning madness–

Fell turned around again. He was talking to Cripp.

“Ever notice that nose on Pander? Ever notice how nice and straight that nose is?” It was another switch nobody could follow, and Fell walked to the door. He stopped there and said, “Pander used to box, some years back. Even if we hadn’t set up a fight for him now and then Pander could still have looked good. A good welter,” said Fell and started to smile. “And then he suddenly quit. Just getting good, and he quits. No heart, you can call it.”

Pander had started to hunch himself up and got ready to take his sunglasses off.

Fell continued smiling. “You see a boxer with a beautiful nose,” said Fell, “and you got a fighter without heart. Look at him.”

Millie Borden looked from one man to the other. Then she moved back. She hadn’t understood a thing that had gone on, but she understood what was shaping up. She moved because there was going to be a fight.

Pander leaned up on the balls of his feet, arms swinging free, face mean, but nothing followed. He stared at Fell and all he saw were his eyes, mild lashes and the lids without movement, and what happened to them. He suddenly saw the hardest, craziest eyes he had ever seen.

See, in some ways it’s an advantage–to not give a damn.  To never count the cost.  To believe you can’t be stopped.  And it’s not like he doesn’t have Cripp to be his brains, or his beautiful wife to hold him together emotionally–except he’s putting unbearable stress on both relationships with his behavior.  Without a superego to get in the way, rein him in, he just keeps upping the ante–he wins a lot at first. But the more he wins, the more he knows he can’t lose.

There’s some stuff about a racehorse he’s been keeping under wraps–gorgeous stuff.  The writing here can make you gasp sometimes.  Ned Beaumont’s card games seem very small and shabby compared to the big race, where the horse, representing nothing less than Fell’s unbridled id, delivers in a big way, beats the oddsmakers, crushes all opposition, puts Fell right back in the driver’s seat–but he can’t stop driving.

A horse knows when it’s time to stop running, cool down, eat some grass, find a mare–a madman doesn’t.  He doesn’t even quite register his horse is a gelding–telling symbolism there–keeps calling him a she.  “I call ’em all she,” said Fell, and then he went outside to Buttonhead.  (Believe it or not, no database I’ve searched can find a thoroughbred by that name.) 

Fell starts pressuring local politicians, knocking over apple carts left and right, looking to build new castles in the air–the town is all sewn-up, on the take, but the state isn’t.  He’s drawing attention to himself and the organization.  He’s doing things for the sake of doing them, like a shark who can’t stop swimming forward, and Cripp just watches him helplessly, knowing it’s all wrong–knowing, in fact, that Fell is sick, because the doctor told him so–but not knowing how to stop him or leave him.  And he could never betray him.  So he just gets dragged down under with him.  Again, quite unique among the duplicates.

The bosses in L.A., who never thought much of Pander, would like to go on trusting in Fell, still can’t help noticing the lines he’s crossing, that put them in jeopardy as well–they do some research–they find out about the psychosis.  The mental hospital.  They dispatch a killer.  Named Mound.  Rabe was good with names.  And killers.

The ending is abrupt, unsettling, and doesn’t tell us what happened to Cripp.  What would be the point?  If Mound finished him, or Pander, it would only be a mercy-killing.

The story, as I said, isn’t about Cripp, and that’s nobody’s fault but Cripp’s.  He let his story be about somebody else, subsumed his identity into Fell’s.  The brain boy forgot how to use his brain for himself.  There’s a moral in there somewhere.  About how blindly following even a magnificent madman can have fatal consequences.  Imagine for a moment, how bad it would be if the madman was just a sleazy old fake, who didn’t even know his own business, his paymaster was a foreign power, and he was in charge of a whole country.  Well, who’d believe that?  Gotta keep these things plausible.

I’d call this the best of the duplicate keys, except it strays so far from the pattern of the master key, it almost doesn’t count.  It reimagines the story to the point where it’s a different story. One reason I’m giving it less time here.  (The other is I don’t want to spoil it for you.)

But Rabe had one more key in him, and this one gets my vote for the cleverest–and funniest–of all these linked stories about fixer and boss.  Even though it’s not as well written as Kill The Boss Goodbye.  Can’t have everything.  It’s got a much better title, Rabe’s own this time, namely–

Murder Me For Nickels:

I have a rule about money, which goes: make it, spend it. It’s the nearest thing to a rule which fits the way I’ve been living through one job or another, until I put in with Lippit. After a while with Lippit, and what with the business we built, there was money left over. What I mean is, I wasn’t used to spending that much and I didn’t have the time, anyway.

That’s how I got to own Blue Beat.

This studio taped only the rare jazz for the aficionados. Naturally, the place was going broke. I had bought the place for what always comes out as a mixture of reasons: I had the dough; I saw a bargain; I like jazz; I know some of the rare musicians, whether they’re known or not. Sew it all up and call it a gamble, and maybe I got Blue Beat because of that. The Lippit operation by then was getting boring, and smooth.

Then Blue Beat made money. We only taped what we liked, but this time it paid. Next for the action, I bought up what was left of a pressing plant on the ground floor where we started pressing our own records and also did jobs for the rest of the studios in the area. Nothing big, but it didn’t lose money. The whole works was Loujack, Inc., Jack St. Louis on the top of the stock pile, but silently.

I’d rather not mix friends and business, and as for Loujack I wanted Walter Lippit to be just a friend. He knew that the outfit was there, the way you know there’s a lamp post down the street, but so what. He didn’t know — there were few who did — that Loujack was me. That would have been different. That would have been less like a lamp post down the street and more like uncle Walter Lippit observing the doings of his favorite nephew. Next, kindly interest. Next, this being all in the family, he might have dreamt dreams about mergers and empires and since Lippit was not much of a dreamer, next thing, he would grab. I’m not against Lippit — friend of mine — but I myself don’t like to be grabbed.

I love being grabbed, if it’s a book grabbing me–and tickling me to boot.  Rabe, unlike Westlake, isn’t known for comedy.  Nor was he half so good at it as Westlake, but in 1960, neither was Westlake.

Gold Medal published this the same year Westlake’s first novel under his own name came out from Random House (also a duplicate key), and reading Rabe’s book certainly would have given the younger wordsmith a notion that you could write a story about funny criminals and not be arch–still make it thrilling, sexy, hip (also extremely violent, because still Gold Medal).

This is all of the above.  It’s also a bit clumsy and rushed at points–Rabe wasn’t used to this, he was trying something new (for one thing, it’s written in the first person, which he hardly ever used).  So you have to excuse the rough spots.  You’ll be well-rewarded if you do.  And that Robert E. McGinnis cover alone was worth more than a measly 1960 quarter.  (You can still get a decent vintage copy for twenty-five bucks or less online–go figure.)

This certainly is a ‘gloss’ on The Glass Key. (Gloss Key?)  Westlake could hardly have missed that–it’s the exact same story, from the same perspective, that of the fixer, but the first person narration is new, as is the narrator.  In this case one Jack St. Louis, a hard-punching fast-running girl-chasing low-flying small-time entrepreneur, right on the edge between legal and illegal, who makes Ned Beaumont look like a stick in the mud plodder.  (Beaumont literally kept getting stuck in the mud, which got kind of vexing after a while.)

The gag here is that what they’re doing isn’t really criminal–they’re putting jukeboxes in bars and other establishments.  That’s a crime?  It is, maybe, if you kind of give proprietors the impression they don’t have any choice in the matter–but they never have to break any windows, or fingers.   They’re providing a service, and making a good living by it. Jack’s doing so well, he’s started his own record label on the side (that he doesn’t want Walter to know about, see above).

Since people want to hear music when they drink, something they can relax to, tap a toe to, maybe even dance to, it’s fairly victimless.  Except the people providing this service may fall victim themselves–to rival mobs muscling in.  In this case, not just any mob, but The Mob, or people affiliated with it.  People with names like Benotti, who Jack goes looking for in a tux, no less.  He wins the fight, but these guys don’t intimidate.  If Jack and his boss/buddy Walter don’t watch out, their thing will become somebody else’s thing, and they might just get murdered for nickels.

And if Walter doesn’t watch out, his current girlfriend will become Jack’s thing–Jack, whose loyalty doesn’t extend to matters of sex (very Grofield), goes to the Lippit home and finds Patty, an aspiring chanteuse hoping Walter can get her into the bigtime, all by her delectable self.  They’ve been eyeing each other a while now.  The moves are applied.  Resistance is feigned.  A zipper unzips. The deal is sealed. But neither means anything serious by it.  It’s not a serious book.  Though it might become one,  if Walter finds out.  About any of Jack’s little side-deals; the one with Patty perhaps mattering least of all (but only cows look good with horns).

Jack doesn’t solve any murder mysteries (because nobody gets murdered–even Gold Medal had to lighten up sometimes).  But he does have to figure out where this new outfit muscling in on their turf came from, how to stop them, and sometimes to get into some pretty serious scuffles with them.  Jack doesn’t think of himself as a tough guy (what real tough guy ever does?) but he’s learned to hit first and ask questions later, and he does pretty well in the fisticuffs department, just by moving fast and doing the unexpected, dressed to the nines while he does it, dropping hoods–and ladies underdrawers–all over town.  (Jon Hamm?  Oh never mind, nobody’s going to adapt it now.)

So it’s a detective novel after its own idiosyncratic fashion, but it’s much more about describing the jukebox business to us, and all the related businesses, like jobbers, record companies, etc.  A lot of organized crime actually involves legit enterprises used in illegit ways, and it’s refreshing to see that done so well here.   There’s no political angle, because they don’t need to corrupt any public officials to do what they do, as long as they don’t do it too loudly.   There’s a wee bit of union fixing, but it’s not the Teamsters.  Nobody gets buried under the 50 yard line for nickels.

So Jack goes on dancing, juggling women (Patty, but also a short stacked little brunette who also wants to be a singer, but can actually carry a tune).  Juggling his job defending Lippit’s interests while trying to defend his own private business concerns at the same time.

Benotti’s bunch buy out their jobber, and now they can’t get new records for the jukeboxes.  Jack’s own record business, complete with pressing plant, could address that short-term.  But Lippit would want to own it himself.  And Patty has found out about it.  And she wants a recording contract.  And Benotti, like every rival gangster in every duplicate key, wants Jack to come over to his side, or else get murdered for nickels, or at least very badly beaten up.  And there are guys on their team who aren’t to be trusted.  Vaudeville never saw such a juggler as Jack St. Louis

So when he finally drops a ball (or Patty drops it for him), Lippit believes he’s a traitor (which, you know….), and let’s just say none of the duplicate key bosses are as trusting as Paul Madvig.

“So what was your plan, right-hand man?” said Lippit.

“The plan was,” I said, “to help you keep playing your jukeboxes.”

“Was that the reason you snuck around behind my back and set yourself up in a legitimate business?”

He used the expression like a dirty word and I felt I should make one thing clear right away.

“Just remember it’s mine, Lippit. Not yours.”

“Sure. And you just remember that I got the union that can rock your boat.”

“How’s that going to help you?”

“It would make me feel just fine. The way I feel, it would make me feel just fine.”

Lippit doesn’t even know about Patty, and he’s almost ready to murder Jack for nickels.  The friendship, that Jack valued (in spite of the bird-dogging behind Walter’s back), turns out to be built on a flimsy foundation–they never understood one another.  But Walter’s not the problem so much as the guys looking to take over from him, who will murder Jack for nothing.  (I can’t possibly recap all this, there’s too much, and I’m over 7,000 words)

Patty, a nice girl down deep, knows it was her blabbing on Jack that got him into this mess–she’s mad at him, for seducing and abandoning her, (and even more because his other girl can sing better than her), but she does not want him dead.

So she does the old femme fatale routine with one of his captors, distracts him, and another thrilling fight scene and a few smooth moves later, Jack’s on top again.  He and Walter call it quits, more or less amicably.  He and Patty go legit with the record label (and his other girl, now superfluous, is more than content with her new recording contract).  Maybe the girl he ended up with can’t sing, and isn’t quite so curvy, but a gal who’ll vamp a hulking hood for you (even if she’s the reason he’s got you tied to a chair, half-conscious) is a keeper, any way you look at it.

Jack steals his best friend’s girl, just like Ned Beaumont–but it’s the right thing to do, they really do care about each other, and Walter doesn’t give a shit about either of them now (he was never that stuck on Patty to start with).

Jack leaves the organization, just like Ned Beaumont–but he stays in town, and becomes an honest businessman–well–as honest as anybody ever gets in that biz.   (When did the payola scandal break wide open?–oh right, year before this book came out.  Would have made for an interesting sequel.)  He was headed that way already, but delaying it–putting off full adulthood–because he liked the romance of being a kindasorta crimelord’s right-hand man.  This crisis forced him to stop with the fence-sitting, and he chose the other side of the fence.

Jack stops the rival mob from taking over, but he doesn’t cause any deaths in the process, and the cops never even seem to notice what’s happening.  He seems happy and hopeful,  when last we see him, Patty leaning on his shoulder–not a fatalist existential bone in his body.  Hardly reformed.  Jack St. Louis will always be a rogue, but he’s not a killer–or a hireling.  He’s his own man now, with his own woman, a team–and he likes it that way.  Rogues can be adults too.

It’s damned upbeat and optimistic for a duplicate key–or a Gold Medal paperback–and most of all for a Peter Rabe novel.   Although after all the beatings that went around, these people should be getting dental work and maybe dialysis.  Gold Medal must have had the best health plan going.

And that gets us through all the duplicate keys save one–that as I’ve already mentioned, came out the same year as Rabe’s last duplicate.  It’s the other duplicate written in the first person, and the only one set in a major city (The Major City, not that I’m biased).  The only one that’s really about The Mafia, and drug-smuggling, and all the things the others kind of danced around.

And it’s not upbeat or optimistic at all.  Not sure what kind of health plan Random House had, but more interested in what kind of funeral benefits they offered.  And yeah, I already reviewed this one.  First book I ever reviewed here.  Let’s see what I missed.  Next time.

(Part of Friday’s Forgotten Books)

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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–

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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