Sunday, February 17, 2013

Book Review: "The Score" by Richard Stark (Donald Westlake)

The first time I encountered Parker, he was almost extinct.
This was in the early 1970s, near the end of Parker's original run of novels. I picked up "Plunder Squad" in hardcover, which in hindsight was not the best introduction to the series. For one thing, it was longer than the average Parker novel. For another, by the time of "Plunder Squad" Parker's self-identification as a loner and a renegade was becoming a thinly-disguised self-delusion. I don't mean to say that Parker wasn't a renegade (by society's standards he clearly was and remains an outsider), but his deeply-held belief in his own self-sufficiency was clearly at odds with the network of allies and, yeah, friends, who peopled "Plunder Squad" and the "final" book in the series, "Butcher's Moon." Parker, in these later early-70s novels, thought he was one kind of man, but in reality, was a very different man altogether.
That's why I say that when I first encountered him, Parker was almost extinct.
Donald Westlake, Parker's creator (as Richard Stark) obviously felt the same way. As happens with writers who devote considerable time and attention to writing a series character, Westlake, I believe, had come to see Parker as a more fully dimensional being than his original creation. In spite of Parker's expressed determination in the early novels (like "The Score") to remain rootless and unattached, Parker had in fact developed roots and attachments. The fact that Parker apparently refused to see and accept this truth about himself made him an intriguing, multi-layered protagonist, but it also must have made it harder for Stark/Westlake to write him with conviction. The Parker of the early novels saw the world simply, but the Parker of the later (1970s) novels lived in a more complicated moral universe. For Westlake, the contradictions must have become too great to overcome. (Contemplating those contradictions undoubtedly gave rise to Westlake's second greatest criminal creation, the hapless John Dortmunder.)
Anyway, back to "The Score."
As an early Parker novel, "The Score" manages to walk the line between Parker's uncomplicated world view and the more complex reality created by the intersection of conflicting human motivations. The set-up is simple: a group of criminals plan and execute the looting of an entire town. It's really the ultimate heist. And it works as planned, without a single technical foul-up. As always in the best crime stories, the fly in the ointment comes from the human factor, and here, we see a hint of the contradictions the later Parker novels (like "Plunder Squad") would express. The heist is almost thwarted by one of the planner's "personal motives." For Parker the professional, "personal motives" are an incomprehensible and potentially deadly distraction from the work at hand. What makes this ironic and foreshadows the end of the original series of Parker novels, in 1974, is that the first time we encounter Parker, in "The Hunter," Parker himself is driven by extremely personal motives, despite his grim self-identification as an untouched and untouchable professional.
Like Ian Fleming's Bond novels, the Parker novels are really separate chapters in the story of a character's evolution from believing himself to be one kind of man, to understanding himself to be another kind of man entirely. In Bond's case that realization led to existential despair. Where it leads for Parker is for you to discover. If you can't begin at the beginning with "The Hunter," "The Score" is as good a place as any to start looking.

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