Parker (a.k.a. Flashfire).

The top 100 prospects ranking is out now – you can view the entire list of names or jump right into the top 25 capsules, as well as the ten prospects who just missed the cut. My ranking of all 30 farm systems went up on Monday. I also did a Klawchat today. Wednesday will bring the AL top tens, with the NL on Thursday along with a fresh chat and the finale of the Baseball Today podcast.

I’ve mentioned Donald Westlake’s Parker series, written under the pseudonym Richard Stark, twice before, thanks to the series of reissues by the University of Chicago Press and the fact that they keep sending me copies of these books. The latest one to show up in my mailbox was Flashfire, which has been reissued under the title Parker because it’s the loose basis for the movie currently in theaters, starring Jason Statham as the title character and Jennifer Lopez as his romantic foil of sorts.

Based on the Wikipedia description of the film’s plot, it seems like the screenwriters made a number of changes for the worse, attempting to ratchet up both the drama and the romantic tension in ways that violate the spirit of the novel and of the Parker series in general. Westlake’s writing here is sparse, as stark as his pen name implies, a stripped-down version of the more literary noir novels of the Chandler/Hammett cohort, and the plot is straightforward although not exactly simple. The novel begins with a bank heist where Parker is betrayed by his three partners, who keep his share as an “investment” in their next job, a massive jewelry theft planned for Palm Beach. Parker has no choice but to let them leave with his money, instead plotting a slow, thorough revenge on his former mates. The plan ends up intertwining him with a local realtor, Leslie, who starts to figure out that he’s up to something other than just shopping for real estate, which turns out to be critical when Parker is shot by hit men sent after him for reasons not entirely Parker’s fault.

The novel’s main separator for me was the interaction between Parker and Leslie, where Leslie’s interest in him goes from purely opportunistic – he’s her ticket to a better life – to something resembling romantic, while Parker remains all business at all times, and views Leslie as a useful asset but nothing more, even contemplating killing her if she becomes too problematic. The imbalance replaces the generic romantic tension of mass-market detective/mystery novels with a different kind of tension, as two people who need each other try to use each other within the parameters they’ve each set for themselves, one trying not to get too close, the other trying to get just close enough. I’m disappointed to see that the film alters this formula a little bit to try to appeal to a broader audience, which doesn’t seem to have worked anyway; sticking to the book more faithfully might have garnered stronger reviews, bringing in a different but at least more substantial crowd.

The one flaw in the book is Parker surviving the attempt on his life by the hit men due to a highly amusing deus ex machina, a white supremacist militia that might as well have been organized by Joe Arpaio and that happens to be patrolling the area of the Everglades where Parker is shot. For a character who survives and succeeds on his wits in most of the books to live to see another day thanks to a band of idiots happening to be in the right place at the right time is a copout unworthy of the character or of Westlake. Even his decision to get into the car, under duress, with two people likely to try to kill him was questionable; I expected him to make some kind of move rather than submit to near-certain death. I won’t pretend that the Parker novels are great literature, but the plots are always interesting and tightly crafted, so this one plot point was all the more irritating for its relative cheapness. Outside of that, Parker fits the bill for me for plane reading – quick, engrossing, serpentine, yet never pandering or insulting.

Next up: Joe Posnanski’s book on the 1975 Reds, The Machine.

The Score.

Littlefield leaned closer to him. “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.”

Donald Westlake, writing under the pseudonym Richard Stark, produced a series of hard-boiled crime novels starring the thief known as Parker, a series that began with the book The Hunter (later adapted for the screen as Point Blank and Payback). The University of Chicago Press has reprinted the first twenty Parker novels (out of 24), including The Score, which is currently available as a free eBook through amazon and is also free on BN.com, with the promotion running through the end of September.

The crime at the heart of The Score is certainly ambitious – Parker finds himself drafted to join a group that intends to knock over an entire town in North Dakota, led by the unreliable Edgars, who devised the plan because he knows the town’s layout and when they could maximize their payout. Stark spends about two thirds of the novel on the setup, with Parker leading the effort to assemble the ideal team and handling some of the logistics, including an interesting scene where he goes to purchase weapons from a blind arms dealer who stores the goods in boxes for children’s toys. The bickering starts from the moment Parker, who has little to no tolerance for bullshit, meets Edgars, and while it never explodes into a complete meltdown, the undercurrent is always there and threatens to undermine the solidarity of the team in an effort where one screw-up will sink the entire operation.

The real appeal of the novel is in the interplay between the characters, mostly between Parker and the others. Parker’s experience and limited tolerance for frivolity makes him the ideal field general for the operation, but he’s also forced to delegate as the group takes over the town almost building by building. Three group members eventually deviate from the plan in one way or another, forcing Parker to adapt on the fly, and his reaction to one of those three was one of the few big surprises in the book. But Westlake’s knack for clipped, quick dialogue keeps everything moving even through that first two-thirds of the novel where nothing actually happens beyond the planning; even the masters in the hard-boiled field, Hammett and Chandler, would typically drop a body or two and have their protagonist get a blackjack to the dome before the halfway point, although both had the brighter, more literary prose that they could have dispensed with those plot devices and still kept me riveted.

I am enough of a fan of heist stories that I knocked out The Score inside of forty-eight hours, and appreciated reading one that’s the antithesis of the overly stylized heist motif popularized by Ocean’s Eleven. I could have done with a little more explanation of the big twist from the mouth of the character responsible, although Stark does provide the basic back story, and Parker’s sudden decision to go soft on one of his partners in the heist, although not terribly consequential, felt oddly out of character. Parker’s simple, direct, no-nonsense approach is the real appeal of the novel for me, even with those quirks, a rare example of a likeable protagonist who’s actually the bad guy.

Next up: Michael Ruhlman’s The Soul of a Chef: The Journey Toward Perfection. Ruhlman’s Ratio remains an essential, often-used item on my cookbook shelf. (Shelves, really. Three so far.)