I have raved before about the quality of stories produced by master crime writer Donald Westlake.
For this book, Westlake’s alter ego, Richard Stark, is back, which is cause for much celebration.
Westlake is great because he writes concisely and sharply, with plenty of surprises in his plots. But best of all, he’s funny.
Stark is a meaner guy. Characters in the Stark books have a tougher attitude and there is little, if any, humor. But the books work because, by taking away the necessity to keep it light, the reader can better enjoy the grim realities of the story.
On the book jacket, crime novelist Ed McBain refers to Westlake and Stark as the “Jekyll and Hyde of crime fiction,” adding, “and I can’t for the life of me tell you which one I enjoy the most.”
Well, I can: I will take Westlake over Stark any day; I could always use a good laugh, although Stark is still fun to read.
In this book, Stark brings back his character of Parker, a skilled criminal, for the first novel in 23 years. As with most books by Westlake, the story seems simple at first: Parker is offered a chance to split the loot for a job with two other criminals.
But then the inevitable double crosses occur. You see, these are not exactly honest people Parker is dealing with.
There is a television evangelist making millions by conning people into thinking he’s genuine and caring. One of his assistants, Tom Carmody, meets an ex-convict through a social work program in which the church works with paroled criminals.
Carmody is frustrated — he’s “got religion,” as his boss, the evangelist, complains — and feels the evangelist isn’t using his money to help people. Maybe, Carmody suggests, he can help someone steal some of the money and they would then split it, with the criminals getting some money and Carmody using his share to help the homeless or some other good cause.
Easy scheme, right? Well, except that nothing is ever simple and easy in Westlake/Stark books. One of the guys tries to steal the $400,000 from his partners after they successfully do the job and, when foiled, isn’t ready to give up.
Soon Parker is left with no money himself, a problem he intends to resolve. And one of his partners is determined to kill him. I’d elaborate but I don’t want to give away any more surprises.
The book has great characters and very believable dialogue, at times putting novelist Elmore Leonard to shame. I join the rest of the mystery audience in saying, welcome back Parker.