The tightly-written, unforgiving heist novel is an enduring sub-genre of crime fiction, and Richard Stark’s Parker series just might be its most sustained multivolume representative. I would have to read the entire series to make that judgement. So far, all of the Parker books have shared a brisk pace, clear language, interesting characters and above all, entertaining plots — all features that have brought in reprints and movie deals. The main tradeoff is that Parker himself is a rather confounding character. His frequent use of violence and intimidation, plus the fact that he thrives by stealing things (mostly cash, but sometimes identities) keeps us from identifying with him, as we might a detective or private eye who doggedly chases criminals. Most of the time, he runs on amoral logic — Parker inserts passages to explain that logic directly a few times in each book — but there are periodically intervals where he is driven by an itch to start another caper, or by a quiet rage to settle a score.
In The Rare Coin Score, the ninth Parker book, we see the logical and emotional halves of the character interact with each other particularly well. The plot is the heist this time, from planning to execution to messy aftermath. Parker and a motley crew (nobody from this group would make the team in The Seventh, Parker excepted) attempt to steal the inventory of an entire convention of rare coin dealers in Indianapolis. The nature of the take means he must work with a far-from-ideal coin expert as the fence, but he also may have found the one woman who could make a lasting difference in his life.
Parker starts the story by enjoying the fruits of a profitable score (the events of The Handle). Fighting a losing battle with boredom by having unsatisfying trysts with various women across the country, he finally gets news of a job from his contact with Opportunity, his friend Handy McCay:
. . . He took her back to the cottage and broke the seal on a pint of Scotch and gave her an hour of talk so she wouldn’t feel like a pickup. The hour was just about up when the phone rang.
It was Handy McKay’s voice, spinning along the wire all the way from Presque Isle, Maine, saying, “Hello, you busy?”
“Hold on,” Parker said, and turned toward the divorcée with a smile different from any smile she’d seen on him before this, and he told her, “Go home.”
The “smile” imagery, so effectively wielded by Ray Bradbury in some of his SF stories, is used to great effect here – in an instant, the recreational Parker vanished and the professional Parker popped into his place on the end of that phone.
Parker’s general script is to forget all about women once he gets working again, but this time it’s different. Once in Indianapolis, where he’s summoned to hear the sales pitch for a prospective score, he encounters Claire:
. . . Then we 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.
We do not get much else in the description of what Claire looks like, a fact reflected by the hidden-face portrayal in Robert McGinnis’ cover for the Gold Medal paperback.
Claire drives Parker to the meeting, and takes an early poke at his mannerisms:
“I’d just like to know,” she said.
“Are you just naturally rude, or are you trying to antagonize me for some reason?”
Parker shook his head. “All you do is drive the car.”
“In other words, I don’t matter.”
She nodded. “Fine by me,” she said. “It just took me by surprise, that’s all.”
There was nothing to say to that, so Parker faced front and got out his cigarettes.
This little give-and-take seemed honest whereas the “cards on the table” discussion between Parker and Crystal in The Handle seemed like an act. Crystal was an escort in the employ of a large criminal organization, but Claire is more convincing as someone approaching Parker on her terms. Claire is very clearly a free agent, we learn of her motivations at the same time as Parker, who finds himself increasingly preoccupied with her.
Claire is the widow of a familial relation to the man who set up the caper, a coin dealer named Billy Lebatard. Billy is a rather sleazy character who cobbles together a living off of an inheritance, a small rare coin dealership, and fencing coins stolen from colleagues. These burglaries are set in motion by Billy recruiting small-time crooks. Billy lusts after Claire, who keeps him at arm’s length but hopeful enough for her purposes. Beyond that, the restive Billy has a number of other negative habits, including inserting himself into conversations and carrying around an unwelcome sidearm.
Parker’s initial contact with Billy’s caper is an old-timer named Lempke, who Parker knows vaguely by reputation. Lempke is just out of prison and desperate to get back into action, a fact not lost on Parker. Filling out the roster is French (another professional thief hungry for a score), Mike Carlow (the driver) and Otto Mainzer (muscle). Carlow’s backstory of auto racing seems like an ill fit, given his bit part in TRCS, but Otto is a loathsome character. He seems to boil inside with hate and insecurity, posing a barely-contained threat to everyone from Claire to Parker.
It doesn’t take long before Parker bails on the meeting and takes a cab back to the hotel, openly disdaining this collection of mostly amateurs and has-beens. Oddly enough, he shares the cab with French, who also turned down the job despite being short on savings.
. . . If French was traveling by train, he must be really close to the edge of his cash. He’d said he was going into his stake, but he hadn’t said how long that had been going on. To be that tight, and yet to turn down a job that fast, meant a good man. Parker filed the contact’s name and address in his head for some other time.
I had to take a second look at this paragraph, since I thought that perhaps Parker may have been only bluffing here, trying to get French to lose interest. After all, as the other professional thief, French was undoubtedly the clearest potential double-cross. However, it seems that he had French figured out at that instant, and was planning on leaving the job for good as well.
Claire pays Parker an extended visit in his hotel room that night, and convinces him to stay in the heist. How this ultimately happens is rather obvious, but Claire is as much of an audience for Parker’s reasoning as she is his girlfriend for the week. He never openly acknowledges it, but Claire gives him a chance to show how intelligent and thorough he is, and he gets satisfaction from explaining things. Other criminals are usually either too stupid to bother with, too dangerous to share anything besides a tightly managed conversation, or – like Grofeld and Salsa of The Handle – simply not around all that much. Claire seems to know what to ask him and when, often before Parker himself realizes it.
Claire also plays roles in Parker’s schemes while reconnoitering the site of the convention, and in moving vehicles around. More importantly, she manages Billy’s jealousies after the coin dealer concludes that she and Parker are sleeping together. The details of how she does this are left between the lines, since Parker seems not to want to know. I’m not sure how much of an ick factor is involved here, but she nonetheless appears to keep Parker and Billy in an uneasy coexistence. It’s an impressive juggling act, considering that she’s continually around dangerous criminals, but the clubs do hit the floor in the second half of the book.
When things get violent during the heist, Parker must make some fast and critical decisions about Claire, who in the end is an ordinary person playing the role of a criminal accomplice. There’s a late passage told from her point of view — describing the moments where events finally tear her out of the “very remote and cool” mode had been maintaining — so we’re invested in her fate at that point. By then, it’s clear how much she adds to this story, and potentially, future ones.
TRCS may be one in a series of Stark’s paperback entertainments written for the check, but there always seems to be evidence that the Parker books contain the stuff of real artistry.* An example of this is the consistent theme of baggage; despite the present-day cliché, everyone but Claire seems saddled with “baggage” in the literal or figurative sense.
- The take from the heist is a large pile of heavy suitcases full of rare coins, requiring a truck to haul away.
- These bags require the help of the best available muscle, the volatile Otto, who we learn is laden with psychological problems.
- Lempke is saddled with his fear of imprisonment, placing too much trust in the unreliable Billy. Eventually he calms himself with an internal mantra that Parker is in charge and will ensure that everything will go smoothly.
- To turn the bags of coins into usable cash, Parker must maintain his tenuous relationship with Billy beyond the heist itself and into the following months.
- Billy is burdened by a socially isolated upbringing and sexual frustration, which makes him alternate between careless outbursts and embarrassing attachment behavior.
- Parker may not have any emotional burdens that he’s aware of, but his interactions with Claire make it clear that the violence intrinsic to his life outside the law could amount to be a serious problem for her.
There is a late hideout sequence were Parker gets involved with yet another woman, which may have been intended to add some suspense around his relationship with Claire. Or it was added on to satisfy his editors, to maintain some sort of alpha-male identity in Parker. I’m not sure, but it certainly seemed like a poor choice, even if it fit his “pattern” of partnering up with whomever he can once the heist is finished. If anything, it seemed to show how the ideas of the series need to keep changing.
Parker may be apprehensive about the baggage of his relationship with Claire, but it’s starting to become clear that, left alone, he’s capable of driving himself into irrational decisions. Overall, this is an excellent heist story combined with a transitional relationship, done in a way that keeps the best of Parker going. 8/10.
NOTE: The Violent World of Parker site has returned after some hiatus. Googling their title takes you to a hair-treatment marketing site, so use the link to check it out.
* I have not seen any of the movies based on Parker, so I cannot say whether or not they rise above average entertainment value. The casting is impressive, however.