The Score by Richard Stark – the Parker series

January 16, 2021 Leave a comment Go to comments

The Score by Richard Stark (1964) French title: En coupe réglée. Translated by M. Elfvik.

I don’t remember why I downloaded The Score by Richard Stark since I didn’t know him at all. I was grateful for the foreword by John Banville in this edition as it puts the book and its character in their context. Richard Stark is Donald Westlake’s penname. He didn’t want too many Westlakes published at the same time, so he decided to take a nom de plume for this series.

Like Lawrence Block in a previous billet, you’ve got to admire these prolific writers who write so much and have so many good stories in their heads that they need several pennames for the market to keep up with them.

The Score is the fifth instalment of the Parker Series and the main character, Parker, is a criminal who steals money for a living. In The Score, he’s been hired by Edgards to organize the heist of a whole mining town, Copper Canyon, North Dakota. The idea is to rob the payroll from the plant, break all the bank safes and break into the jewerly store.

At first, Parker thinks it’s madness. When he works out the details and finds the right men, he starts thinking it’s feasible. One thing he doesn’t know: this operation seems to be a personal matter for Edgards and Parker wonders if it’ll interfere with the success of the job.

The Score is split in three parts: preparation, operation and aftermath. Twelve men are necessary to secure the town, steal the money efficiently and buy time to escape, stay put for a while and split. I couldn’t help wondering why they didn’t put all this intelligence and attention to details into legal activities.

Parker is a born leader. His physique inspire respect from the men:

He was a big man, broad and flat, with the look of a brutal athlete. He had long arms, ending in big flat hands gnarled with veins. His face—it was his second, done by a plastic surgeon—looked strong and self-contained.

You sure don’t want to mess up with someone like that but in operation, he’s smooth, levelheaded and tries to avoid useless violence.

Grofield liked to watch Parker work. See him before a job, or after, you’d think he was just a silent heavy, quick-tempered and mean, about as subtle as a gorilla. But on a job, dealing with any people that might be in the way, he was all psychology. Terrify them first. Terrify them in such a way that they’ll freeze. Not so they’ll make noise, or run, or jump you, or anything like that, just so they’ll freeze. Then talk to them, calm and gentle. Get their first names, and use the first names. When a man uses your first name, calmly and without sarcasm, he’s accepting your individuality, your worthiness to live. The use of your first name implies that this man really doesn’t want to harm you. The fright to freeze them, and then the reassurance to keep them frozen. And it worked almost every time.

Parker is a professional who wants to keep earning money in perfectly executed heists. He doesn’t do sloppy because he wants to stay out of prison and if he gets caught, he doesn’t want to be charged with manslaughter. So keep the violence to a minimum, don’t do any useless damages and focus on getting the money.

Stark (Westlake) is a fine author with a cinematographic writing. The Score reads itself as you watch a good crime film from the 1950s or 1960s. For a French, it’s a Gabin or Belmondo kind of movie.

Stark excels at building the tension. The preparation of the operation is detailed enough to be plausible and he transported me with the characters when they studied the town’s map in an abandoned wharehouse, when Parker went to purchase the weapons they’d need for the heist. I learnt about the underground financing of such criminal operations.

For the record, the men decide to take the risk and rob the town for an expected loot of $20 000 per person. As a comparison, the purchase of all the weapons (machine guns, tommies, rifles and handguns), the several cars and the trucks needed for the operation cost $4000. So, $20 000 is a lot of money in 1964.

Stark/Westlake writes a good story, avoids useless violence and gory details and instills a bit of humor here and there. Here’s one of the men lecturing Grofield because he doesn’t pay income taxes while every criminal knows you need to find a creative way of justifying the origin of your money on your income tax return and pay taxes like a good law-abiding citizen.

“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.”

Right. Good advice. After all, Al Capone fell for tax fraud.

Another quote, from the scene where Parker buys the weapons for the job:

Machine guns,” said the blind man. “They’re expensive, machine guns.” “I know,” said Parker. “And hard to come by.” “I know.” “The government tries to keep tabs on them. It’s tough to find one without a history.” “I need three. And three rifles. And eight handguns.” “Rifles, handguns,” said the blind man. “No problem. Machine guns, that’s a problem.”

Ah the good old days, when it was difficult to get machine guns in the USA. This is 1964. Just a reminder that government control on weapons existed at some point. See, it is possible.

The Score and the Parker series have been made into a BD (graphic novel). The French version of the BD is translated by Tonino Benaquista and should be good entertainment and the translation is recent. According to the cover, the drawings by Darwyn Cooke look gorgeous.

As an novel, The Score was published by Série Noire and translated by M. Elfvik. It’s currently out-of-print and since there’s no recent translation, I wouldn’t be too confident about the quality of the 1960s one. Other books of the series have been republished by Rivages Noir and may have been retranslated.

This is a perfect Beach & Public Transport book. It’ll keep you entertained and there’s no gratuitous violence. I’m curious about Parker and how Stark/Westlake developed his character.

  1. January 16, 2021 at 4:59 pm

    I’ve not read any of the Stark books and just a couple of the Westlake ones. The way you’ve written about this one does make it sound quite appealing. I could do without all the guns that pervade American crime fiction (and real life) though.

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    • January 17, 2021 at 9:34 am

      This is my first Westlake, his style is impressive. I also have The Scared Stiff on the shelf.

      The Score is a hold-up kind of books, it’s hard to avoid weapons. I liked that Parker is focused on the robbery and he’s methodical. He wants to avoid violence as much as he can.

      As a European, I will never understand US gun policy. This quote about Parker buying machine-guns shows that the story of everyone entitled to a weapon since forever is just the bullshit that the NRA managed to push through Americans’ throats. Since it’s been decades, now enough people believe the bullshit to get in the way of a healthy regulation.

      Liked by 1 person

      • January 17, 2021 at 4:32 pm

        As an American, I’ve never understood it myself. I’ve seriously thought about moving elsewhere because of the fixation on guns among all too many people. And look at the mess it’s gotten the country into. It’s insane.

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        • January 17, 2021 at 11:14 pm

          Tom says machine guns have always been forbidden. I still think there are too many weapons accessible to common citizen.

          Liked by 1 person

          • January 18, 2021 at 12:02 am

            That’s true but in some states semi-automatic weapons are legally sold and there are people who modify them to make them even more lethal. There are states that have stricter gun-control laws (like this one), but nearby states don’t and banned weapons come in anyway.

            Liked by 1 person

            • January 18, 2021 at 7:56 am

              The only way is a federal law, then. Good luck with that.

              Liked by 1 person

  2. January 17, 2021 at 11:50 am

    Score points for an excellent truck pic. (It’s a Diamond Reo – long defunct). I suppose if the hero put the same thought into legit activities it wouldn’t generate the same rush.
    I’m not sure rich people pay tax in – anywhere really – any more. Just set up a shell company in Delaware or the Caymans and hey presto. I saw a story that if the US Internal Revenue put real money into enforcement they could pay off the deficit.

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    • January 17, 2021 at 3:06 pm

      Of course, you’re the one who’ll notice (and identfy!) the truck picture.
      Yeah, I guess you’re right. The question is all about the adrenaline and getting a lot of money at the same time and being idle between two heists.

      I’m not sure it’s that easy not to pay taxes in Europe, but maybe it is. (The calculation method is different) Here, companies declare their employees’ wages to the tax administration through a unique portal for taxes and social charges. The banks do the same for revenues coming off investments. When you get your income tax return, it’s prefilled.

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  3. January 17, 2021 at 7:22 pm

    Funny, this is like my Lawrence Block comment.

    I’ve only read the first Parker novel, but in that one is a revenge story, not a heist, and it is thus pretty violent, including a couple of innocent victims who just got in Parker’s way. He is maybe more of a sociopath in that book.

    My understanding is that Westlake originally killed Parker off at the end of the first novel, but his smart publisher told him: No, this character deserves a series.

    I should note that machine guns – automatic weapons – are currently and have long been illegal to purchase or possess in the U.S. (excepting collectors of old machine guns who have to register and buy a special permit).

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    • January 17, 2021 at 7:35 pm

      Oh, Parker doesn’t hesitate to kill, that’s for sure. He doesn’t do what he judges useless or emotional violence, not by empathy or kindness but just because it’ll make the prison sentence worse if he gets caught.

      I thought that machine guns were used at the Columbine killing. I’m probably not proficient enough in fire arms to make the difference and for me anything automatic, with a long barrel and two handles is a machine gun and shouldn’t be allowed in non-military hands.

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  4. January 17, 2021 at 7:52 pm

    In terms of the quotation from the Parker novel, the Columbine murderers used handguns and shotguns, which all would have been legal in 1964, although probably not legal for those particular characters, convicted felons, to own. But easy to acquire in the U.S., legally and illegally, then and now.

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    • January 17, 2021 at 11:04 pm

      Ah, thanks, it’s clear now.

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  5. January 20, 2021 at 10:33 am

    Sounds very good. I’ve read a Westlake — Somebody Owes Me Money — which I liked a lot. A very entertaining piece of crime fiction, if I recall correctly. He seems to use humour very well, which chimes with your commentary on this one. Are you tempted to go back an read some of the earlier books in the series, maybe to see how the character of Parker develops?

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    • January 20, 2021 at 7:53 pm

      I’ve read Somebody Owes Me Money too and I quite liked it.
      I’m not sure I’ll read earlier Parker books, after Tom’s comment, I’m more tempted by subsequent ones.

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