Thursday 26 August 2010

Parker Progress Report: The Sour Lemon Score by Richard Stark

Wow, this is a mean one.

There's a weird morality that weaves through Donald 'Richard Stark' Westlake's Parker novels. For the most part, despite all the violence, the heists, the mayhem, the only people who get hurt or meet untimely ends are those who share Parker's amoral world: criminals and lowlifes. Regular members of the public are generally left untouched. There's a string of bodies across the Parker books, but they're either part of Parker's crew, or silly buggers who've crossed him somehow, and either way they're likely on the wrong side of the law anyway. Presumably, even when Parker and co. hit a bank or a payroll, the poor schmucks whose life savings are deposited there or who are waiting for their hard-earned cash would be covered by insurance; the institution might lose out, or the insurance company, but not the individual.

Allison & Busby HB, 1986
There are exceptions, however, and when they occur, they're all the more shocking as a result. Right back in the first novel in the series, 1962's The Hunter, when Parker's staking out the Outfit hotel in New York from a hairdresser's across the way, he gags a woman so he can keep her quiet while he keeps watch. Unfortunately she's asthmatic, and dies. When he discovers this, Parker's disturbed; not because he particularly feels for the woman, more because her death was unnecessary, untidy. That's about as much emotion as you're going to get out of Parker: when regular joes occasionally wander into the firing line, he doesn't feel bad out of any kind of empathy – he just knows that the death of an innocent will complicate things and maybe bring unwanted heat. Even so, that is a kind of morality, if not on Parker's part then certainly Westlake's. And in The Sour Lemon Score – number 12 in the series, following The Black Ice Score, and a bruising book even by the standards of Stark – the fates of a number of innocent bystanders lend the novel an added level of jolting horror.

It's not just innocents that meet gruesome ends though, or who provide the shocks. The book opens with a bank job that goes off without a hitch, but as soon as Parker and his three cohorts hole up in their hideout, things start going spectacularly south. Westlake hits us with a couple of killings that come out of nowhere, delivered in his blunt, no-frills prose, and as ever all the more impactful for it. From there, Parker embarks on a quest to recover the lost loot, one which involves him trekking up and down the Eastern Seaboard on the trail of the betrayer, George Uhl.

Allison & Busby PB, 1991
This chase provides the impetus for the plot, such as it is; as he races from city to city Parker's forever one step behind, to the extent that he even pauses at one point to reflect that his efforts could be considered comedic if they're weren't so bloody frustrating (prefiguring Westlake's Dortmunder novels). Along the way he encounters a former ally of Uhl's, Matt Rosenstein, and inadvertently sets Rosenstein off in pursuit of the money too. Rosenstein acts as an interesting counterpoint to Parker, and this is where Westlake starts to play once again with the possibility of a moral core at the centre of Parker's amoral universe. Rosenstein's utter amorality throws Parker's relative morality into sharp relief: where Parker is reluctant to inflict injury on innocents, Rosenstein positively revels in it, cheerfully maiming and raping his way across the novel. Parker may be a bad man, but at least he's restrained by his single-mindedness: the score is what counts. Rosenstein's just a complete and utter bastard.

That nastiness reaches its apex at the climax of the book. Rosenstein and his lover, Paul Brock, hole up at the suburban family home of Uhl's old high-school buddy, Ed Saugherty, where Uhl had hidden out briefly. While they wait for Uhl to get back in touch with Saugherty and thus identify where the money from the heist is, Rosenstein whiles the hours away making use of Saugherty's wife (as Rosenstein himself reasons, he may have a male lover, but that don't make him gay). This mostly happens 'off-page', but it doesn't make it any less distasteful.

What we end up with is a kind of 'Parker to the rescue' scenario, if only inadvertently. Parker finally works out that the suitcase full of money is with Saugherty, and launches an assault on the house. So Westlake pits the amoral anti-hero against the even more amoral villain, with the lives of five innocent bystanders – Saugherty, his wife, and their three kids – at stake. But Westlake still isn't done with the questions of morality, because there's a sting in the tail that potentially turns the whole matter on its head, leaving us with the possibility of one last corruption that'll either turn your stomach or leave you with a wicked smile on your face, depending on how dark your sense of humour is.

Our Stark Stooge this time out is probably George Uhl (although his eventual fate isn't quite what you'd expect compared to previous Stark Stooge performances), but you could make a similar stooge case for Rosenstein, Brock, and maybe even Saugherty. Either way we do get a solid Stark Cutaway too in the traditional position of Part Three, bouncing between Uhl, Brock, Rosenstein and others in a mix of flashbacks and fill-ins.

Next up it's Parker #13, Deadly Edge, which I suspect may well continue this mean streak. Bring it on.


  1. If you're reading these in order, and I hope you are, you're going to love 2002's Firebreak. It wraps up the events from this book in a neat tidy fashion. Also, it's mean as hell.

  2. I am reading them in order, so I've got a few to get through before Firebreak. But ta for the preview!

  3. I like your blog,what you write about Parker series. You mirror my thoughts when i read the books. I have been reading Parker series since 2008 and even more since the new reprints.

    I have read the new Slayground and on Deadly Edge right now. If you liked Sour Lemon Score for the challenges Parker had you will love Slayground.