The Green Eagle Score (a Parker Novel), by Richard Stark

Regardless of the title under consideration, at least fifty percent of any review of a Parker novel could be generically applied to any other of the titles in the series. That’s not a negative observation.

Although every book has a seaworthy plot—airtight, ingenious, and (mostly) plausible—a Parker novel is above all about Parker the character, Parker the attitude, Parker the unstoppable force. You read a Parker novel (and another, then another, and before you know it you’re re-reading The Parker Novels, because you don’t want it to be over) for a window into a life lived via wit, purpose, and talent unencumbered by the inconvenience of having to account for society’s judgment or, worse, someone else’s feelings. Parker lives life with the clear-eyed understanding that, in the end, he is on his own in the world and no one is looking out for him.

That said, Parker’s criminal success relies on the fact that the rest of us do subscribe to social and institutional compliance. He exploits it, to our horror and fascination. He’s a native behavioral psychologist, using his observer’s detachment to weigh the risks and advantages of including or excluding any player, either as a member of his string for a job, or as the mark of that job. If something is out of kilter, Parker walks. (He walks, that is, unless he takes the necessary steps to smooth out the road to a successful job. You know what I’m talking about.) Presumably, in documenting Parker’s world, Richard Stark decided to leave out those potential jobs where our protagonist simply walked and didn’t look back. After all, those books would be even shorter than the already sub-200 pages that make up your average Parker novel.

The Green Eagle Score is about as perfect as a Parker novel gets (and for the record that’s damn near, on multiple occasions throughout the series). The job is to knock over the payroll office of an Air Force base in upstate New York. The complications are many, as you’d imagine, but these are accommodated by Stark’s typically meticulous plotting. The build-up to the heist follows the usual formula (recon—personnel—materiel) while in the narrative foreground our attention is directed to the various liabilities among the flawed humans Parker must navigate to pull off the job.

A recently released con eager to re-establish his ‘stake’ after blowing his wad (unsuccessfully) on lawyers; the con’s ex-wife, jittery around crime now that she’s seen the consequences of a conviction; and the ex-wife’s new boyfriend, who works at the air base and is an enthusiastic thief-in-the-making; these three form the core of the story’s supporting cast and supply the dysfunctional dynamics that threaten to turn a feasible job into a comedy or much worse.

Adding another dimension, Stark introduces a therapist who is seeing the ex-wife for regular sessions to help with her anxiety. His interest in his timid client escalates sharply when her revelations hint at a possible robbery in the offing. The portrait of the therapist is deft and fleeting as a pickpocket, sketched out with a Starkian economy of words that yields as much depth as a more expansive Donald Westlake treatment. (Not that this is unusual. The man nails his characters just about every time; I think Stark/Westlake might have been a genius at it.)

Further plot revelations would spoil the reading pleasure but, faithful to the Parker formula, Stark turns success into disaster into a salvage operation that rewards and punishes the protagonists with a mixed bag of rough justice and indifferent Fate. In Parker’s world character is destiny, unless you happen to run out of luck first.

Some critics have described Parker as a sociopath to distinguish him (I guess) from your garden-variety psychopath. I disagree. Despite inhabiting a world of robbery and killing, Parker is not pathological. He takes no pleasure in killing, and controlling people is not worth his time. Rather, he understands people and interacts with them as fits his purpose, which is nothing more than the rational application of intelligence and judgment.

This is what makes him so compelling. Parker is a stripped-down human, motivated by need and the instinct for survival. Outwardly, he exists at the base of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs (sustenance, physical security); as far as we know he has lived his entire adult life on the run from the law, hunted. He can spend a dozen hours sitting quietly in the dark, waiting for nothing more than time to pass until it’s time to act again. He’s mechanical, single-minded, and solitary. He apparently experiences minimal joy. And yet we somehow have a hunch that—between jobs, at least—he has in fact made it to the top of the pyramid (self-actualization): answerable to no one, free (for now, as long as his wits and luck hold out), the executive of his sole proprietorship.

Parker is a glimpse of who we could be—perhaps who we’d have to be—if circumstances hadn’t allowed us, or persuaded us, to be so soft.

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Originally posted at goodreads.com: http://tinyurl.com/mq3tkwr

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