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BOOK REVIEW

Is the law catching up to Stark's Parker?

May 09, 2008|Dick Lochte | Special to The Times

Dirty Money

A Parker Novel

Richard Stark

Grand Central: 276 pp., $23.99

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SLAMMING through a new crime novel by Donald E. Westlake -- and it's hard to drag your feet once the process starts -- is a little like spelunking in a cave system whose twisted paths lead to fascinating galleries and grottoes, some bright and sparkly, some shadowy and frightening. "Dirty Money" and the other thrillers Westlake writes under the pseudonym of Richard Stark are of the latter category, an exploration of caverns dark and gritty. But even with the ground shifting under your feet and a sense of foreboding in the air, the experience is compelling and oddly exhilarating.

Westlake created the Stark pen name in 1962 to accompany a paperback novel about a professional thief named Parker. "The Hunter" was conceived as a stand-alone, but Parker, as his duplicitous wife and homicidal ex-partner were to discover in the yarn, was not so easy to kill. Since then, Westlake/Stark has added 23 books to the series, and the famously unsentimental lawbreaker has appeared in seven films, played by that many leads: Lee Marvin and more recently Mel Gibson in adaptations ("Point Blank" and "Payback," respectively) of the first novel, Jim Brown in "The Split" (based on "The Seventh"), Robert Duvall in "The Outfit," Peter Coyote in "Slayground," Michel Constantin in "Mise a Sac" (based on "The Score") and Anna Karina in "Made in USA," Jean-Luc Godard's woozy version of "The Jugger." The use of a variety of American actors, white and black, a French actor and a French actress prompted a friend of the author to suggest that the character may have been ill defined.

Not true. Though Westlake prefers to keep his prose lean and mean, Parker, like even the least crucial member of the series' cast, is portrayed in careful, minimalist strokes that more than suffice. We've been told that he's big, raw-boned, slow to smile and quick to react, an unemotional professional who believes in honor among thieves. In the new novel, when Parker and his longtime significant other, Claire, show up in a country village in northwestern Massachusetts posing as "leaf peepers" (weekend travelers who delight in the colorful effect fall has on the trees), we learn that not only can he carry off the role of a tea-sipping aesthete, the vibe he emits is more thoughtful than threatening. "There's not much colorful about him at all," a lawman adds.

Parker's reason for the trip, of course, has nothing to do with observing nature's beauty. Two misadventures ago, in "Nobody Runs Forever," he was involved in an armored car robbery that had an exit plan about as successful as the one in Iraq. Trapped on foot much too near the crime scene, he ditched the loot in an abandoned church and spent most of his last book, "Ask the Parrot," slipping past the roadblocks.

As "Dirty Money" opens, it's only a week later in Parker's world, and, regardless of the still-present roadblocks and lawpersons, he feels compelled to recover the spoils before they're found by a former associate or the police. It's a given that, no matter how well planned a theft may be, it will not go smoothly. Thanks to Westlake's fecund imagination, the mistakes, complications and desperation moves are as original and weirdly logical as they are surprising.

The assortment of characters designed to help or hinder Parker's progress is unusually large here, probably because so many have been carried over from the two previous entries. There is a quartet of women -- an observant police detective, a clever bounty hunter, a homespun manager of a bed-and-breakfast and a young highway patrol officer who's much too curious about the church she attended as a youth.

The men include a nosy novice reporter, a not-quite-trustworthy bar owner, a cop killer on the run, an annoyed New York State police captain and an ancient wheeler-dealer who drives a car the description of which provides a perfect example of the author's economical but effective style. It's "the color of the liquid in a jar of pitted black olives," he writes, "so anonymous you forgot it while you were looking at it."

Ever the pro, Parker takes each hitch in stride, keeping his eye on the prize. But, as I suspect the author has been suggesting since "Nobody Runs Forever," time is running out for him. In that book, he lost his crucial fake credentials and, perhaps worse, exposed Claire to the scrutiny of the FBI. In "Dirty Money," his anonymity takes several more hits, and the author (known to be more crafty than careless) leaves untended a potentially incriminating bit of evidence that will presumably put his antihero's off-the-job invisibility in serious jeopardy sooner or later. What Westlake seems to be acknowledging is that the Information Age's ever-increasing technological attack on privacy is turning this into "No Country for Old Career Criminals," no matter how professional or how careful they may be.

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Dick Lochte is the author of the comedy-thriller "Croaked!"

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