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BOOKS IN THE MIRROR: Parker for Hire:

WEST PALM BEACH, Fla. – There’s a wonderful line in Graham Greene’s script for The Third Man. Joseph Cotten’s idealistic American — a dreaded combination in Greene’s world — is making sounds about getting to the bottom of things. Trevor Howard’s saturnine English cop snaps: “Death is at the bottom of everything. Leave death to the professionals.” Parker is a professional. You can tell that because in the first moments of Nobody Runs Forever, he notices that somebody at the poker game is wearing a wire. He excuses himself from the table, gets up, slips off his tie and strangles the man. The rest of the people at the table are also professionals. After Parker has killed the man, they stop playing but keep talking about how cold the cards are, maybe they should make an early night of it, etc. The man is dead, you see, but the microphone he was wearing is still very much alive. These men have gathered to talk about a job. The job involves an armored truck transporting money and securities from one place to another. Parker and the other men mean to intercept that truck and take the money. This is the sort of thing that Parker does for a living. As someone says about lawyering, an equally cold-blooded line of work: “A lawyer is somebody who finds out where money is going to change hands, and goes there.” You could say the same thing about almost all of the characters in this tight, delightfully cold-blooded book: adulterous wives, cheating doctors, clumsy bail bondsmen, smart bail bondswomen and professional criminals. Richard Stark is, of course, the great Donald Westlake, who has been writing tantalizingly good thriller and caper novels for more than 40 years. He’s written 25 Parker novels alone. Westlake/Stark mainly writes for movement, although once or twice a book, he’ll drop in a sentence with some rhythm, just to break up the constant staccato. In Nobody Runs Forever, this is the sentence: “In this part of New Jersey, three hours south of Massachusetts, the September days were sometimes summer, sometimes fall.” That’s as fancy as it gets. Mostly though, it’s pretty blunt, seasoned by flashes of street wisdom: “A cop walks like a cop. Even the women cops do it. Women walk as though they have no center of gravity, as though they’re all waifs, or angels, but cops walk as though their center of gravity is in their hips, so they can be very still or very fast. To see that kind of body motion on a woman was strange, particularly on a good-looking blonde.” Parker doesn’t kill anybody else after the book’s opening scene _ but then, Parker is a sociopath, not a psychopath. Once again, it’s the amateurs that screw things up for the professionals. As the armored-car heist unravels, it seems as if fate itself is working against Parker, this time. In many respects, the Parker novels are throwbacks to the 1950s and ‘60s. There is none of the opera bouffe hijinks of the Soprano family, no street gangs, no drive-by shootings, nothing about drugs. These men are white, middle-aged, often don’t even carry guns, and do what they do for one reason only — money, which equals freedom. Some of the Parker novels are the literary equivalent of superb little black-and-white film noirs, while others are not so good. Westlake is one of those writers who does his pages every day whether the inspiration is there or not, and lets people like me worry about whether he’s working up to his standards. Nobody Runs Forever is one of the very good ones – astringent, not really very brutal, but as tough and taut as a silk necktie doubling as a garrote. Nobody Runs Forever, by Richard Stark. Mysterious Press; 295 pages; $23.95.

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