I picked up this Richard Stark novel in a local second-hand bookstore and was attracted by the reviewers’ descriptions of its main character (click the photo to enlarge). Funny how repulsive can have a contra-semantic effect. The ‘unforgettable Parker’, it turned out, is the same one played by Lee Marvin in John Boorman’s 1967 film Point Blank. Sold!
The Rare Coin Score has one stylistic detail I want to analyse here. Parker, Billy, Claire and Lempke are in a backyard planning a heist of rare coins. Parker, the ‘supreme bastard’ protagonist, has suggested a shortcut in packing the loot. Billy, a rare-coin specialist, explains why it wouldn’t work (note: he’s holding a spatula because he’s barbecuing burgers):
‘You take valuable coins,’ Billy said, gesturing with the spatula, ‘you just drop a lot of them in a canvas sack, carry them off someplace, dump them out on a table, you know what you’ve done?’
Parker said, ‘Tell me.’
‘You’ve lowered their value,’ Billy told him, ‘by maybe twenty-five per cent. Coins are more delicate than you might think. They rub together, knock together, the value goes right down. You go from unc to VF just like that.’
‘Billy,’ Claire said wearily, ‘they don’t know those terms.’
‘I’ve got the idea,’ Parker said. ‘The point is, we’ve got to pack them up, right?’
Jargon in non-fiction can be explained directly – in parentheses, a glossary, and so on. But in fiction it must be done less obtrusively to avoid pulling readers out of the story. For instance, a genre novel using an acronym will often use the full term nearby so that readers aren’t left wondering. Or the gloss may be foregrounded, whether in dialogue or narrative; this requires a deft touch lest it seem clunky.
Occasionally a writer does something else altogether. In the passage quoted above, Stark leaves the obscure collectors’ terms unc and VF entirely unexplained – and not only that, but he makes this decision part of the story and the reading experience. Parker has no need for these trivial details, and so neither do we. This strengthens our identification with him.
The author also uses it as an opportunity to concisely reveal or underscore personality traits and dynamics: Parker is direct and focused, unwilling to waste time on anything unnecessary to the job; Claire is impatient with Billy and sensitive to group communication; Billy lacks this communicative sophistication, and is perhaps inclined to be wrapped up in his own world.
All this from three lines that hinge on two jargon items whose meanings we never even find out. With a library or the internet at hand, it takes just a few seconds to discover that in coin grading unc means Uncirculated – almost mint condition – and VF means merely Very Fine. But this information, while satisfying, was peripheral to the author’s aim.