Monday, June 28, 2010

34. The Score by Richard Stark

The Score is the 5th Parker book and in some ways one of the most straightforward. The emphasis in this book is on the heist itself, the planning, the preparation, the execution, the getaway and the spoils. There is an "Alma", of course, but it's a surprising one. The first time I read The Score, I was totally blindsided by the complication and it was awesome. It is done so abruptly and you are so caught up in everything that is going on in the heist, that when it happens, it's a total double-take. You're like "Wait, what, did I just read that?" It's an awesome little moment and one that was lost to me this time around, as I already knew it was coming.

The Score is also the first Parker novel that has no direct narrative string to the betrayal that launched the series in the first place. This time he's simply in between jobs and one presents itself to him. It's a doozy and at first he doesn't want to do it. An outside connects with one of Parker's colleagues with a plan to rob an entire town. It's a small mining town nestled at the closed end of a canyon (where the mine is situated). There is only one way in and out. There's the mine payroll, two banks, a savings & loan, two jewelry stores and a bunch of other shops, all protected by a 3-man police shop, a fire station and a highway patrol station 2 miles south of town. Go in at night, take the whole town over and rob everything as fast as possible.

A job like this takes a lot of men and we get to meet a bunch of cool heisters, all with their specialties and personalities. A lot of these guys will show up later on in the series. Of all of Westlake's manifold writing skills, his work with names is the one that I find the most impressive. He manages to always find names that are evocative, appropriate to the period, but somehow always a little unique so you'd remember them. Paulus, Salsa, Littlefield, Wycza, Elkins and Wiss. Does anybody know how he came up with them? It also takes a lot of tools and planning and we get some juicy heist foreplay in The Score.

So it's a great read, with some textbook heisting techniques and the bang when it happens is awesome. But The Score doesn't quite resonate with me as much as it should. I think it lacks a certain intensity and Parker himself never really gets deep into the shit. Don't get me wrong here, this is a great book and still ranks in the top tier of any heist or crime books. But we're talking about Richard Stark here, the top of the top and as all is relative, there are going to be some of the books that aren't quite diamond perfect. The Score is an important volume, nonetheless, because it sets the rhythm of the books, where Westlake could just do a heist story without it having any connections to longer narratives. This also helps to underline Parker's raison d'être, which is fucking stealing shit. We know we aren't going to get bogged down in a bunch of stupid internal prevarication or mid-life crises. Parker is going to steal stuff to the best of his ability and the only issues he'll confront will be other people's.

There are two minor female characters in The Score who play interesting roles, both in the narrative and in the way Parker interacts with them.

Finally, the forward, by John Banville, of the University of Chicago edition was disappointingly weak. It's basically a broad overview with no new information nor interesting analysis. Some of his points I'd even take issue with, such as that the violence in Parker is "always quick and clean." Yeah, um, no it's not. It may sometimes be quick but there's nothing clean about the nasty feeling you get in your stomach when you read one of Westlake's quick lines describing some poor sucker's fate delivered by Parker.

I'll conclude on a positive note by sharing two great quotes from The Score. One is another awesome Westlake simile and the other is an example of the kind of information one wants to absorb when reading a Parker book.

He put his beach robe back on over his trunks, stuck cigarettes and matches in the pocket, and walked through the sand and bodies toward the hotel, which was squatting there like a big white birthday cake.

Littlefield leaned closer to him. "You're a young man, you can still learn. Pay attention to this. You can steal in this country, you can rape and murder, you can bribe public officials, you can pollute the morals of the young, you can burn your place of business down for the insurance money, you can do almost anything you want, and if you act with just a little caution and common sense you'll never even be indicted. But if you don't pay your income tax, Grofield, you will go to jail."

So cynical!

Thursday, June 10, 2010

33. The Best of Fredric Brown (edited by Robert Bloch)

Fredric Brown was a prolific writer of science fiction in the 50s and 60s. He wrote for all the major magazines (and not just in the genre ghetto, but for Playboy and Esquire and so on), wrote books and screenplays (the episode "Arena" where Kirk has to battle that lizard dude is based on a Fredric Brown short story). I know him mostly from his novels (The Mind Thing is one of my all-time favourites). He is known for his humour and his really super short stories, like a page with some kind of clever twist. I'm usually lean away from short stories, but this Richard Corben cover (which depicts a scene from a story about the world's best hunter going after a yeti with a twist ending that made me laugh out loud) was just so awesome, I had to pick it up.

I'm glad I did because it was an enjoyable read. I liked the Yeti story. There was also a really good one about a printing press that started to learn. The problem for me with short stories is that just when you are getting into a writer's style, the story ends. So what I do is keep several books of short stories going and I read them when I am in between novels. So I actually started this book several years ago. I forgot a lot of the earlier stories, but a general sense of enjoyment remains.