A Year in Books – June

The Score – Richard Stark
The Great Betrayal – Ernle Bradford
The Forever War – Joe Haldeman

The Score – Richard Stark

The fifth of Richard Stark’s Parker novels sees the hard-bitten anti-hero/ professional thief embroiled in what might be the biggest and most audacious score of his career – to take control of and plunder an entire town in one night.

In what could be described as a ‘reverse magnificent seven’ (although there are more than seven in Parker’s crew), The Score documents the plan, recruitment and execution of the robbery and, of course, the moment when everything goes horribly wrong. Hard boiled and violent, The Score is a fast-paced thriller that packs a lot into a slim volume, grabs the reader from the word go and holds on tightly.

I’m a relatively recent convert to the Parker novels, although I’d been aware of them for quite some time (thanks largely to the film adaptations of the books, in particular Point Blank and Payback, both of which were based on the first Parker novel, The Hunter) but it took me a while to get round to them.

I’m glad I finally did.

In Parker, Richard Stark (a pen name for Donald E. Westlake) created one of the most memorable anti-heroes in crime fiction. Parker is tough, single-minded, cruel when he needs to be, a thief and a killer – because this is what it takes to live in his world.

Viewed with ‘law abiding eyes’, Parker is a man with a skewed moral compass, but rarely is is violence or cruelty without self-justification (in fact, there are several moments in The Score when Parker could be said to be almost compassionate, even though any such compassion is purely professional),

Written in 1964 when Stark/ Westlake as working in what must have been a streak of white-hot creativity, The Score is a top-notch crime thriller and the Parker books are hard, bright diamonds of American popular fiction.

The Great Betrayal – Ernle Bradford

The Fourth Crusade, instigated by Pope Innocent II, was, like its predecessors, intended to secure the Holy Land for Christendom and, furthermore, to aid the embattled Frankish (crusader) state of Outremer.

Yet in culminated in the siege and sack of Constantinople, the Christian capital of the Byzantine empire, and led to the downfall not only of Byzantium but to an irreparable schism between the Orthodox and Roman Catholic churches.

How and why this happened is the subject of Ernle Bradford’s The Great Betrayal.

Like previous crusades, the movement of large amounts of armed pilgrims from Europe to the Middle East presented huge logistical problems. The leaders of the Fourth Crusade turned to the mercantile city of Venice for transportation and a deal was struck to transport thousands of crusaders to Egypt (then a strategic position for an assault on the Holy Land).

Unfortunately, a substantial proportion of the crusader forces chose to make their own way east and the leaders of the Fourth Crusade were left in a precarious position – owing the Venetians vast sums which they simply could not afford to pay – and with the very real possibility that the crusade itself would be stillborn.

Persuaded by the Venetian Doge, Enrico Dandolo, to attack the city of Zara in order to clear the debt (Zara, although also a Christian city, had been at odds with Venice for some time) and then by the exiled Byzantine Prince Alexios to restore him to power in Constantinople, the Fourth Crusade finally launched itself against fellow Christians and the sack of Constantinople that followed destroyed much of the power, wealth and beauty of the city.

Ernle Bradford tells the story of the Great Betrayal concisely and elegantly, putting flesh onto historical bones and invoking the sense of loss, brutality and, of course, betrayal engendered by the siege of 1204.

A fascinating look at a little known event of medieval history.

The Forever War – Joe Haldeman

Dealing in absolutes is a tricky business – someone, somewhere will always hold an opposing view – but to my mind, The Forever War is the finest military sf novel ever written, capturing the futility, confusion, terror and human cost of warfare.

I’ve written about The Forever War before so I don’t intent to recover old ground here, but I have literally lost count of how many times I have read Joe Haldeman’s classic work (it’s one of a group of novels that includes James Clavell’s Shogun, Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, Stephen King’s The Stand, David Gemmell’s Legend and Robert McCammon’s Swan Song that I return to again and again for the simple joy of re-reading).

Told from ‘the ground up’ by William Mandella, first as Private, later Lieutenant and finally Major, the novel is the story of an interstellar war between Earth and the alien Taurans, one that uses worm-hole technology to transport the combatants from planet to planet with the resulting relativistic dilation of time. Hence, although the war begins in the late twentieth century and carries on for a thousand years, Mandella is still a young man by its eventual end.

Like Glen Cook’s The Black Company, this is a ‘grunt’s eye view’ of war. Here, heroism is a relative term, survival and sanity are more important, and the great events of the war all-too often take place elsewhere.

Written in 1974, The Forever War could be said to be a reaction against the military SF of writers such as Robert Heinlein – certainly, the imagery and imagined technology owes a debt to Starship Troopers – but lacking the ‘Earth Uber Alles’ attitude or the pulpy action-oriented feel which can so often be present in military SF.

A deserved classic.

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