Parker, Meet Barca
(July 13, 2014)

NOIR (pronounced “nwar” or “nwah,” depending who you ask) is a genre concerning itself with the grittier side of life. There’s no telling who (or what) the protagonist of the story might be—a stone-cold killer, a double-dealing femme fatale, or just a desperate, deeply flawed person, struggling to find a way—any way—out. Hard-hearted cynicism is the order of the day, and you shouldn’t get your hopes up for a happy ending.

Descended from the pulp fiction magazines of the 1920s and ’30s, noir literature came into its own in following World War II with the introduction of paperback books. Rather than reprinting bland old classics, a few visionary publishers (Ace, Dell, Fawcett and a few others) used this new format to put out inexpensive “paperback originals,” featuring generous helpings of crime, violence and sex (although never as much sex as the garish cover art promised). The strategy worked like a charm. Clearly, these novels would never be mistaken for great literature, but they were pure, undiluted fun—and still are!

In a traditional mystery, Philo Vance (or whoever) has to figure out who committed the crime. In a noir story, you already know who did it—in fact, you were right there with them when they did it! The question then becomes: Will they get away with it, or will the whole thing come flying apart at any moment?

Longtime readers of this blog (of which there are none) already know about my cherished collection of old, beat-up paperbacks. Some of them I’ve had for decades, others I’ve just acquired recently. Whenever the spirit moves me, I’ll use this space to offer up quick summaries and evaluations of a book or two. Hey, wait! The spirit is moving me right now! So, here we go…

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In the lead-off position is The Black Ice Score, written in 1968 by Richard Stark (AKA Donald E. Westlake). It’s the eleventh installment in Stark’s series of novels featuring Parker (no first name), the master thief. Parker is extremely good at what he does—so much so, that the police seldom figure in the plot at all. He’s thoroughly professional, and will kill, if the situation calls for it.

In this outing, Parker is approached by a small delegation of African nationals from the tiny country of Dhaba, which recently overthrew its white minority ruling class. Unfortunately, the newly installed president’s first act was to convert the entire treasury into diamonds, then flee to New York City. Not surprisingly, the Dhabans want the stones back. Surprisingly, the Africans aren’t asking Parker to recover them—they want him to train them to pull the heist themselves. Parker reluctantly agrees to instruct them in the fine art of thievery, but remains skeptical that these first-timers will be able to pull it off.

Complicating matters is a group representing Dhaba’s former white rulers, who want Parker on the sidelines, and kidnap Parker’s main squeeze Claire to keep him there. There’s also an obnoxious  private eye wannabe named Hoskins, who is determined to cut himself in on the profits, one way or another…

Much attention is given to planning the caper, showing Parker’s extreme competence in his chosen field. Like the flipside of a “police procedural,” The Black Ice Score could be called a “criminal procedural.” It’s entertaining enough, but neither the plot nor the supporting characters are particularly memorable.

I’D RATE IT: 3 out of 5.

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Leaving Parker in the 1960s, let’s flash forward to 2014 and Barca’s Jackpot. Unlike Parker, Nick Barca hates what he does for a living. He’s a disgraced SFPD cop with a self-destructive streak. His gambling and womanizing have cost him his career and his marriage, and he’s been reduced to working as hired muscle for a local mobster. Oh, did I mention that Barca owes the mobster a five-figure gambling debt? Yeah, well, he does.

But there’s hope… sort of. The mobster will forgive Barca’s debt in exchange for one itty bitty favor: Barca must fly to Las Vegas and perform a hit. Or, if he’d rather not, he can respectfully decline—in which case, his wife and son will die slowly and horribly. Whatever else he’s done in his life, Barca is no assassin. Furthermore, he realizes there’s about zero chance that he’ll come back alive—which may be the general idea. Still, his back is against the wall, so he heads to Las Vegas.

While scoping out the hotel where the deed is supposed to happen, Barca encounters D-Man, who claims to be there to perform the very same hit. Barca isn’t sure whether D-Man is working with him, against him, or if he’s just a loose cannon. In any case, D-Man is an unwelcome complication…

Barca’s Jackpot is a fun mix of the old and new, strongly influenced by old-school noir, but thoroughly modern. Willis hints that this may be the first book in a Barca series, which would be more than welcome.

I’D RATE IT: 4 out of 5.  

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Until next time... READ MORE NOIR!
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