“I find this idea that everyone’s actions are perfect distillations of their true moral values, to be really odd and even a little troubling.” — Babalugats
The 23 books written by Richard Stark about the thief Parker are schematic, variations on a theme. Most of them begin in media res with an opening sentence constructed along the lines of “When X happened, Parker was doing Y” (My favorite, from Firebreak: “When the phone rang, Parker was in the garage, killing a man.”). All save one are broken into four parts: Introduction, Complication, Diffusion, Resolution. All revolve around criminal acts, their planning and fallout.
But the theme itself is rigid yet compelling: This is what Parker will do to get what he wants. A statement, not a question of what the protagonist will or will not do, which is generally where drama comes from. “How” he will accomplish his goals generally guides the plot, “What” is reserved for the people who, willingly or not, cross his path. What happens to them? In The Stand, Stephen King — a huge Richard Stark fan — has one of his protagonists see a vision of the demonic villain Randall Flagg in a cyclone boiling across the prairie:
I am looking at whatever is in my worst dreams,” Nick thought, “And it is not a man at all, although it may sometimes look like a man. What it really is is a tornado. One almighty big black twister ripping out of the west, sucking up anything and everything unlucky enough to be in its path.
Flagg is malicious and cruel, Parker is … not exactly those things. But he is as amoral and unobjective as a murderous wind that spins out of nowhere and devastates anything it touches, with the same emptiness at its core. There is no difference between how he acts and what he thinks, he’s a being of almost pure will and that excludes morality. A Parker novel cuts across itself, the character tearing through the world Stark sketches precisely and coldly — a world that pushes back — leaving death and destruction.
Stark never repeats himself in plots. But while there are exceptions, most Parker books can be broken down into two very basic setups — planning for a job, and dealing with a job gone wrong* — and The Sour Lemon Score falls into the latter category. It opens with a successful heist, described in characteristic detail of position, action and emotion of all participants, that almost immediately goes south. As Parker and his accomplices divvy up the take in their hideout, nervous asshole driver George Uhl tries to grab it all, shooting and killing the other two heisters and forcing Parker to escape with no cash, no car, no gun and very few prospects. This does not stop Parker from wanting his money back.
From there, the plot of Parker trying to find Uhl and his money is redirected, stymied, entangled. Parker attempts to trace Uhl through his associates, which alerts two of them that Uhl is on the run with a decent chunk of change, and they join the chase, while Uhl realizes multiple people want him dead and goes on the offensive. So three antagonistic forces are tracking each other in various circles as the action moves from New York City to Washington DC to Virginia to the outskirts of Philadelphia and back. A new tornado alley.
When Parker is trying to find a car, some cash, a way out of the hard spot Uhl has left him in, Stark describes how he does these things, how he finally gets from point A to a safer point B, because each of these actions is important to Parker. But during these increasingly frustrating drives up and down the East Coast, Stark doesn’t spare a sentence for the scenery, not wasting our time with frivolous description because Parker isn’t wasting his time thinking about it. Stark uses a limited third person point of view to put readers in Parker’s head as he makes decisions** and draw them into his perspective.
Which is ruthless — at one point, a man Parker is pumping for information gets shot to death in his own backyard. His wife screams, Parker finds cover and gets away, and is only pissed off that he didn’t learn enough during the encounter. The dead man ceases to be of interest to Parker when he ceases to be and what Parker is not interested in is utterly unimportant — to him, to the narration, to the reader. Through the same discipline of tone, of word choice, of view, that Parker himself employs, the books train the reader to think like him. To see through his eyes and disregard everything else. Then it pulls the rug.
Here is what Parker sees when he meets George Uhl’s ex-girlfriend Joyce Langer, the last chance he has for a line on Uhl’s location:
The girl who opened the door to Parker’s knock had the aggrieved look of the born loser. Without it, she would have been good-looking. A willowy girl with long chestnut hair streaming down her back in the manner of urban folk singers, she had good brown eyes and a delicately boned face, but the hangdog expression destroyed her shot at beauty. You looked at her and you knew right away her voice would be a whine.
The withering appraisal is one thing (note the extremely subtle diss of “urban folk singers”) but the most devastating part of this is its completeness. Parker sees everything he needs to see and what appears to be everything that is there, and subsequent events do not prove his assessment wrong, at least for his purposes. He convinces Joyce to let him know if George comes by, and George eventually does, terrified of what’s on his trail but still able to muster the contempt to treat Joyce as a just a port in a storm. A quick fuck and then a combination of maid and waitress. And for a moment, Joyce realizes it:
A dull anger, like the beginning of heartburn, began inside her. It was such a cheap and obvious lie. He didn’t even work very hard to make her believe it. She was supposed to be grateful for whatever dregs she got; she wasn’t supposed to look the gift horse in the mouth. All he had to do was give her the bare outline of the role she was to play, and then she would play it.
“Had it always been that way? The anger turned sour because it had.
For one moment — seven pages in a book that barely cracks 200 — Joyce gets a chapter to herself. So does Uhl. And so do several other people, some of whom never meet Parker but have been brought into this story because of him. In every Parker story, Stark at some point turns the narrative over to members of the supporting cast. Part of this is because while every Parker plot can be told from his point of view, the story only makes sense when these other characters pitch in with what they know. And part of this is because a tornado’s story is also who it hits. Stark doesn’t “care” about these people in the sense of sympathizing with their plight, and he certainly doesn’t use them as props to tut-tut Parker’s actions. But he does see them and lets us see through their eyes.
There’s Joyce and her self-loathing that ultimately betrays Uhl. There’s Uhl himself and his spineless self-preservation and self-regard, manipulating a friend from high school to help him out as well. There’s that friend, Ed Saughtery, who lets himself be used for reasons he can’t explain. There’s another ex-girlfriend who is the most tangential person to the story, a funhouse mirror of Joyce who cuts out the bullshit and owns and runs her life and herself. She’s beaten nearly to death and raped for the hell of it.
And then there’s her rapist, Matt Rosenstein. He and his partner (in multiple ways) Paul Brock are the other people searching for Uhl after drugging Parker and prying information out of him. Rosenstein and Brock take Saughtery and his family hostage in their home, intent on finding money they believe Uhl has left there. Rosenstein — who is gay in orientation but by nature seeks sex “any way he could get his hands on it” and considers himself straight — prepares to rape Saughtery’s wife. Saugherty tries to fight, to Rosenstein’s contempt: “Everybody always needed convincing. He reached out one hand and held Saugherty with it and used the other hand to start hitting him.” Those two sentences are are more violent in their cold curtness and simplicity than an extended description of the beating would be. They very nearly could have been written about Parker.
Here is what happens when, thanks to Joyce snitching, Parker is able to finally ambush Uhl:
Uhl started through the doorway and Parker stepped over quickly in front of him and slapped him across the face with the barrel of the gun. Uhl flipped over backwards onto the floor and Parker kicked him and then stood back and watched him again. He felt very patient, very measured. He had all the time in the world.
Throughout the story, Parker is pursuing and being pursued by dark reflections of himself. Uhl is just a funhouse inversion of Parker, a distortion that replaces professionalism with foolish greed, but both Rosenstein and Parker are shrewd judges of character and situation and violent crooks whose ability to deliver pain is essential to their success as criminals. But Rosenstein is a sadist whose violence is its own end and its own pleasure and excess.
That “start” in the sentence describing Rosenstein’s assault of Saugherty opens a chasm: the beating will begin and no ending is in sight or even considered. Parker’s violence is focused to purpose, it is a tool. He precisely beats Uhl, wasting no movement, and is ready to act further if the situation requires. He is patient not because he is looking to draw this out, but because he is in control and control begins with the self.
The only person who can stop Parker turns out to be Parker. He gets Saugherty’s address out of Uhl, drugging Uhl just as Rosenstein and Brock drugged him. He drives Uhl out to the Jersey swamps to shoot him but Uhl is so doped up and docile he’s barely a person and Parker, furious with himself, won’t kill this pathetic thing in front of him, despite what Uhl has done already and the damage and danger he will no doubt bring if he remains alive. But it will take too long to let the drug wear off so Parker makes sure Uhl isn’t going anywhere fast — “He bent over Uhl and broke three bones, all fairly important” — and heads for a showdown at Saugherty’s house.
Which he wins, of course, severely injuring Brock and Rosenstein after a shootout. And he finds that Saughtery, the only person who knew where the money was, had been beaten to death by Rosenstein. He’s the fourth person dead, not to mention the people beaten and raped and robbed, in the tornado brought by Parker, and the reason for all of this destruction has disappeared. Parker leaves the pleading, crippled men to the vengeance of Saugherty’s wife. The end.
It’s a controversial ending in the Parker mythos. It’s the only book in which Parker doesn’t kill anyone and more importantly, he leaves enemies alive when they are at his mercy. Both Uhl and the Brock/Rosenstein combo make appearances in later stories, although not in any meaningful way — they’re irritants disposed of during larger plots — the way some other characters, usually mob bosses, remain significant antagonists over time. Stark had no real plans for them, so why were they spared?
Parker is not unstoppable, he can be balked or forced to reconsider or caught off guard. If he couldn’t, he’d be some kind of supervillain, more tornado than man. And he is not sociopath enough to ignore how others react in all their uncertain motives. Arguably his greatest skill is his ability to read people and bide his time until the most opportune time to act — despite his dim view of Joyce, he acts polite and human enough around her to convince her to betray Uhl.
It’s his unity of will and action — his focus on the task before him and how he will accomplish it, with no regard to any known morality save whether his actions could in some way make life more difficult for him — that makes him different from the people he blows through, their flesh and blood a mixture made for confusion and hesitation. He’s as solid and relentless as a golem, as ungovernable as the wind. But the wind can, only for a moment and maybe despite itself, change.
*needless to say these overlap constantly, but one or the other is the initial plot driver
**there has never been a truly great Parker film adaptation and some surprisingly terrible ones, because screenwriters can’t resist softening the character. But they also face a difficult task of trying to show Parker’s actions without having Stark’s ability to explain the rationale behind them, which may not make him a nicer character but shows the intelligence beneath the brutal presentation