Saturday, January 23, 2010

The Outfit Finds Humanity In Flaws

What is it that makes an individual human to you? Bear with me, I’m not trying to get existential here. What is it about a person that inspires affection? It probably isn’t incredible talent. The gifted can draw your interest or admiration, but their proficiency doesn’t give us warm fuzzies when we bump into them at a party and have to make small talk. If anything, it’s a bit intimidating. No, what binds soul to soul is a touch of imperfection, the knowledge that no matter how skilled this person may be, he hasn’t washed his car in three months, his computer breaks out in the blue screen of death whenever he enters the room and he loves reading about sparkly vampires. Flaws foment caring -- no less in narratives than in real life. It’s a technique Richard Stark puts to good use in The Outfit, the third in his series of novels about the near-superhuman thief Parker.

Parker didn’t think the Outfit would call his bluff. He knew he’d irritated the national crime syndicate when he’d forcibly recovered some cash one of their associates stole from him. Still, he’d believed his penchant for mercilessness (and the resultant growing body count) would’ve served as a deterrent. But a late-night visit from an incompetent hit man with a silenced .25 proved it hadn’t. Now Parker’s got an idea. Independent types such as himself don’t typically rip off racetracks or casinos or drug dens, anything the Outfit might have its fingers in. And without interference, the Outfit’s gotten soft. The way Parker figures, it’s up to him and his friends to take advantage of that fact -- and to do it fast.

Stark turns this installment of Parker’s adventures into an ensemble show, trotting out all sorts of quirky criminal types. There’s Clemy, the Georgia chop-shop man on a quixotic quest to turn a tiny Volkswagen into an uber-speedy getaway car. Klee, a purveyor of semi-legitimate firearms, displays the sort of affection for his wares that’s usually reserved for members of the opposite sex. Salsa is an illegal immigrant who once subscribed to collectivist philosophy but has now awakened to “the Truth of Self-interest” (which he seeks with a loaded firearm and a well-charted getaway route). They’re a delightfully oddball bunch, a far cry from the calm competence of Parker. But even he gets humanized a little. While writing a letter explaining his plan, he complains that the Outfit “thinks it has a greevance on me.” And in reading that, you realize you realize this unstoppable criminal possesses only the most rudimentary formal education. An unexpectedly poignant touch.

(Picture: CC 2008 by

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