Thursday, May 22, 2008

Forgotten Book Friday

... in which I pick up Patti Abbott's tag-team effort of assembling a list of books which, in her words, "we love but might have forgotten over the years."

I've done this sort of thing on the blog before, with "One Book and Beyond," an extension of The Rap Sheet's One Book Project from last year. I've previously written about Leonard Gardner's FAT CITY, Jonathan Valin's EXTENUATING CIRCUMSTANCES, Lawrence Block's THE DEVIL KNOWS YOU'RE DEAD and Anthony Lee's MARTIN QUINN.

This time, though, I want to go back even farther, to 1967's THE RARE COIN SCORE, Donald E. Westlake's ninth "Richard Stark" novel about a hardcore professional thief named Parker. Parker needs no introduction, but unfortunately THE RARE COIN SCORE has been effectively out of print since the 1985 Avon paperback edition. That's too bad, because in my mind it's the quintessential Parker novel, the uberStark.

It was first published as a paperback original (cover above) by Fawcett Gold Medal, under the editorship of the legendary Knox Burger, and adorned with a classic Robert McGinnis cover. Despite its almost generic title (when the series moved from Pocket Books to Fawcett, the first four books used the word "Score" in their titles), RARE COIN SCORE is a landmark book in the series. It was a revamped Parker with a new publisher and a major new character, Claire, who would become Parker's regular woman for the rest of the series (she figures prominently in the latest, this year's DIRTY MONEY).

SCORE also has maybe the greatest opening line in Starkdom:

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.

The second sentence is just as good:

He took a room in a downtown motel and connected with a girl folk singer the first night, but all she did was complain how her manager was lousing up her career, so three days later he ditched her and took up with a Bourbon Street stripper instead.

(The previous eight Parker books had all begun with the word "When," a device that returned in 1997's COMEBACK and continues to this day.)

Revolving around the robbery of the bourse room at a coin show in Indianapolis, SCORE is Parker at his leanest and meanest, both in terms of character and prose (the original Gold Medal edition runs only 160 pages). It also contains scenes in which the writing is so simple and direct - yet evocative - that they've stuck with me ever since I first read them. Here's one, the beginning of Part One, Chapter Eight:

"I must be a masochist," Claire said. She was sitting up in the bed, knees up, arms wrapped around her legs.

Parker, lying beside her, said "I hadn't noticed."

She gave him a quick smile, then looked away again, saying, "I'm always attracted to men who are about to get killed."

"Not always," said Parker. "Light me a cigarette."

"What, not you? You're the worst of them all." She took the cigarette and matches from the night table, lit two cigarettes and gave him one. "The first boy I ever - ever went around with, drove in stock car races every weekend. His left leg was all scars from an accident."

Parker said, "Ashtray."

This is also the only Stark novel I remember in which Parker shoots a relative innocent, gunning down a Pinkerton guard who draws on him during the course of the robbery. And in her first appearance, Claire is more the classic noir femme fatale, stringing along an amateur named Billy Lebatard until he gets the job in motion, then switching her allegiance to Parker, setting off a triangle that almost sours the whole plan. Think Marie Windsor in Stanley Kubrick's THE KILLING.

THE RARE COIN SCORE is existential crime fiction at its best. It's also a master class in terse, effective writing. The fact that it - and so many of the other Stark novels - remains out of print is a crime.

(For my thoughts on Brian Helgeland's restored Parker adaptation PAYBACK: STRAIGHT UP - THE DIRECTOR'S CUT, see here. .)


pattinase (abbott) said...

Thanks for a great review. So far, I've read none of the books for this week. I thought I was fairly well-read when this started but I have a lot of catching up to do. Thanks again.

tintin said...

Oh, man I love that opening. Another one to add to the list for used book stores.

wstroby said...

Yeah, it's almost musical, isn't it?

P.L. Sullivan said...

I like the Westlake/Stark books a lot, more so than most of the comic caper books he writes under his own name.

And it's nice to see a mention of Knox Burger, who is an old fishing friend of my father and, alas, in poor health.

Randy Johnson said...

Great book. I'm a fan of the Parker novels and have them all but the newest and Butcher's Moon(a little pricey for me on the used books sites).

wstroby said...

Knox was my first agent - briefly -back in '99 or thereabouts, right around the time he was closing down his agency. We never met, but had a lot of correspondence by mail and phone, and he gave me invaluable advice on developing the first couple drafts of BARBED-WIRE KISS. He called me once after reading some early pages and said - in his characteristic bluntly gruff way - "You're trying to write like Richard Stark. Don't!"