“The Score” by Richard Stark (a pseudonym of Donald Westlake) was the 1964 entry in the series starring the gruff and businesslike thief known only as Parker. The novel was later released under the name “Killtown,” and in the book’s opening scene, Parker kills a man with his bare hands while walking down a New Jersey street. This sets the tone for both Parker as a no-nonsense character and the events that follow.
He’s in New Jersey to be pitched a plan for an audacious and complex heist promised to bring in $250,000. The idea is to take over an entire desolate North Dakota town and steal everything - the bank vault contents, loan company cash, the jewelry stores, and the payroll of the local mining company. To pull this off, a lot of good men will be needed for the job. The problem: the guy who identified the target and assembled the initial team is an amateur with unknown motives. Can he be trusted?
Parker devises a plan that would rely on 12 men working in concert over one night to paralyze the town and make off with the loot. The dozen trusted thieves assembled for the job are a wonderful cast of characters - especially when they are chewing the fat about their chosen profession. One conversation about the importance of paying income taxes on ill-gotten gains was particularly hilarious and insightful.
“The Score” also features the first appearance of Alan Grofield, the summer stock actor who finances his dramatic pursuits by pulling heists. Grofield serves as the comic relief in this novel, and the reader is treated to his origin story. He reappears in later Parker installments and even had a four-book spin-off series of his own. In this one, Grofield makes some problematic choices along the way that compromise the success of the mission, and the reader learns a lot about him as a person.
“The Score” is structured pretty much like other Parker heist novels: Recruitment, Planning, Execution, Getaway, Resolution. Part Three of the story places the reader in the narrative heads of characters other than Parker, and this was especially fascinating because of the intricacy involved with the moving parts of a 12-man crew. The weaving of the female characters into the story arc was particularly well done and served to humanize the hardboiled guys in the story.
A heist novel without bumps in the road would be tiresome, and some curve-ball compilations arise in “The Score.” I won’t give them away here other than to say that the problems that manifest themselves in this one were my favorite parts of the story and elevate this paperback among its genre cohorts.
Although this was the fifth entry in the Parker series, it stands alone nicely as a self-contained novel without reliance on prior installments. It’s a fairly perfect series, and pitting one installment against another is a fool’s errand - you might as well read them all. In any case, suffice it to say that “The Score” is absolutely essential reading for hardboiled fiction fans. Highest recommendation.
Fans of the Richard Stark books would be well-served to visit the fan site “The Violent World of Parker” which dissects his work with an impressive academic rigor.
The website is: www.violentworldofparker.us