DIRTY MONEY: A PARKER NOVEL, by Richard Stark, Grand Central, 275 pages, $23.99
Richard Stark is the best-known pseudonym for Donald Westlake, a prolific crime novelist who occasionally turns to comedy and science fiction.
Westlake turns 75 in July and is writing with the same energy he did early in his career. He has written probably 100 novels under Westlake's name and about 25 under Stark's name.
He selected pseudonyms beginning in the 1950s because he was writing too fast and publishers only wanted to put out one of his books a year. Not enough for the creative Westlake. Other pseudonyms he has occasionally used are John B. Allen, Curt Clark, Tucker Coe, Timothy J. Culver, J. Morgan Cunningham, Samuel Holt and Sheldon Lord.
This latest crime caper is billed as "a Parker novel," named for a quick-thinking, hardboiled, remorseless thief Westlake (Stark) has used many times. This is a follow-up novel to "Nobody Runs Forever," in which Parker and two shady friends stole the assets of a bank in transit, but the police were so close to catching them that they left the money behind.
In "Dirty Money," Parker and cohorts plan how to recapture the loot, which they hid in the choir loft of an abandoned country church, stuffed in boxes next to other boxes filled with hymn books. They plot to use a getaway van with the name, "Holy Redeemer Choir," emblazoned on its doors.
Stark's criminals predictably never trust each other, so they make intricate plans, plus some alternate proposals they can shift to if the first ones don't work, or if they need to abandon each other to escape the law.
One of Stark's best tactics is to make officers of the law appear to be pushovers. For instance, when the criminals drive the weird van to the church and start loading boxes of money, two police officers catch them in the act, but the criminals slyly explain their way out of it, even opening a couple of boxes to reveal hymn books.
Soon, the cops leave without going inside to search the church.
Parker's main problem is that he is afraid to travel because his name has become so soiled by criminal acts that he cannot trust his driver's license, passport, credit cards or any other means of identifying himself. So he has to spend $200,000 to get a phony identity.
The criminals add two wiley and attractive women to their party, partly because the police are looking for three men. The women characters exhibit enough brain power for them to not only keep up with the guys but to outsmart them.
The plot is simple — get the money and run — but the story is dialogue-driven, clean and spare with a generous use of subtle wit. The reader will experience early identification with the characters, even though their moral values are nonexistent. Oddly enough, Parker and his friends are likeable and their caper is a lot of fun.