Amtrak was new but the station at Rhinecliff was old, one end of it no longer in use, rusted remains of steel walkways and stairs looming upward against the sky like the ruins of an earlier civilization, which is what they were. At the still-working end of the platform, a long metal staircase climbed to a high enclosed structure that led above the tracks over to the old station building. The land here was steep, coming up from the river, leveling for the tracks, then continuing sharply upward.
A dozen people got off the train with Parker, and another two or three got on. He came down to the concrete last, the only passenger without luggage, and stood on the platform while the rest of them trudged up the stairs and the train jerked forward behind him. In his dark windbreaker and black chinos and heavy black shoes, he looked like some sort of skilled workman, freelancing, brought in by a contractor to do one specific job. Which he was.
Encouraged by his at last being able to write in the Stark voice again, Westlake wasted no time in writing another Parker novel, which was published just about exactly a year after Comeback. Westlake hit upon an odd little gimmick for the first five of the Final Eight–each title was composed of one two-syllable compound word, and each one after Comeback began with the second syllable of the previous title. He sometimes had to strain a bit to justify the title in terms of the plot, but on the plus side, you always know which book comes next. Or–do you?
Here’s the thing–I’m finding myself increasingly convinced that in chronological terms, Backflash comes before Comeback. No question Comeback was completed first, since Westlake started working on it in 1988. Fact is, dating either book would be enough to give even the redoubtable D. Kingsley Hahn conniption fits. Not because there’s no evidence of when they take place, but rather because there’s a superfluity of conflicting evidence.
Comeback would seem to be taking place in the late 80’s, right after a series of prominent televangelists got themselves into trouble with their shameless shenanigans. That tracks with when Westlake first conceived it. But he conceived Backflash in the mid/late 90’s, and its premise certainly tracks with that as well.
Backflash is taking place in a sort of parallel universe version of New York State, where Riverboat Casino Gambling was 1)a political inevitability and 2)involved the floating Monte Carlos actually going out on river jaunts, instead of just sitting at the dock, accumulating cash from the pockets of people with too much spare time and not enough sense. Where’s the romance in that, pray tell? A much less interesting challenge for Parker.
Westlake would have read articles like this 1994 op-ed, from a proponent of riverboat gambling in New York, and it would have gotten his mind moving. But in fact, there was massive political opposition to this from the get-go, and to this day, the Empire State has no such nautical gaming houses, though gaming it has, in abundance.
Westlake lived to see Yonkers Raceway, just over the Bronx Border, turn into Empire City Casino. (I gambled there myself once, but strictly on the ponies, and I won!–all of five bucks. How was I to know I was betting on the favorite, he just looked really good in the warm-up lap. Okay, I suppose there probably were ways I could have checked that.) There’s casino gambling at the Saratoga racetrack as well, the reasoning being that this way you get the tax revenue from gambling and you keep the racing industry afloat.
One reason given in the book for the eagerness to institute riverboat gambling on the Hudson is the success of Foxwoods Casino Resort in Connecticut. That actually started on the Pequot reservation as a bingo hall in 1986, and it’s a long complicated litigious story you can read about elsewhere, but nobody in Albany was paying that much attention until about a decade or so later, by which time Foxwoods was the east coast gambling addict’s Disneyland. Most of New York’s casinos today are likewise on land controlled by local tribes, something Westlake would touch upon in the next Dortmunder novel.
So that should, by all logic, make a shambles of my theory that Backflash came first. Except for several things I will now annoyingly bring up, since I never admit I’m wrong if I can possibly help it.
See, if we can say that this is a parallel timeline, where the success of a land-based casino somehow means New York had to have water-based casinos (when in fact they decided to go the same way as Connecticut, give the Indians a break for once, and the ponies too, for that matter), then we can just as easily say that Foxwoods graduated from bingo parlor to full-fledged casino in a much shorter span of time, perhaps started up at a much earlier date, and faced fewer legal challenges. Maybe it’s actually the early/mid 80’s when all this is happening. But can I point to any other evidence this is the case? In fact I can, and the corpus is most delectable indeed.
This book marks the return of the poetically named Noelle Kay Braselle, the hippie chick heister from Plunder Squad (who turns out to hail from a much older and more pragmatic subcultural milieu than Haight-Ashbury). After Noelle and her boyfriend are apprehended in that book, we see the other members of the string watching a news story about the arrests, which mentions that she’s 21 years old. That information comes from the police, who have been checking her vital statistics. No reason to doubt it.
But in this book, while her exact age is never disclosed, we have it from multiple POV’s that she looks just around 30, give or take. Could be a bit older, or a bit younger, but essentially ten years have elapsed for Ms. Braselle since last we saw her in Plunder Squad, and she was arrested in June of 1971, according to D. Kingley Hahn’s persuasive arguments.
And furthermore, if this book is happening in the late 90’s, say 1997, the year before its publication, Amtrak is over a quarter century old (having been founded the same year Noelle got busted), and hardly qualifies as ‘new.’ Please note the opening line of that quote up top. The description of the station tracks nicely with how it would have looked in the early/mid 80’s, but that decaying ironwork Stark refers to would have been removed by the late 90’s–see any sign of it in that photo I nabbed from the Wikipedia article for the Rhinecliff Station?
So what do we have here? Intentionally mixed signals. Westlake wants us to not quite be sure when this is all happening–time is well and truly out of joint. He’s not writing a period piece, because he doesn’t do that, and certainly not when he’s in Stark mode. But he’s not writing 100% in the present, because it doesn’t suit his purposes here. He wants this to be the past and the present, simultaneously. In these Stark novels he wrote in the 90’s, time is a river that flows both ways–like the Mahicantuck, AKA the Hudson. These people are out of an earlier time, and they bring some of its archaisms with them–and they drag us back with them, and the story takes place in some historical nether-realm
The stories of both Comeback and Backflash were inspired by events that occurred around the time they were written. But neither is strictly rooted in those times (or shows any evidence of the advanced communications technology increasingly prevalent in those times, which would be pretty damned relevant to the stories being told, particularly in the latter instance).
And none of this proves Backflash happened before Comeback, but I still think it did. Partly because it helps fill in that yawning vacuum between Butcher’s Moon and the new books. Partly because of the sums of money involved here, and inflation. Partly because it has all these familiar faces from the books of the 60’s and 70’s, and sure, maybe they all came through that time warp I was theorizing about the other day, along with Parker. And maybe they haven’t aged normally because that’s a convention of series fiction, and I’m just obsessing over minutiae, as is my wont.
But then again, maybe the reason we never see them again in the six subsequent novels (when we see the Mackeys over and over) is that they’re still back in the past–in the 80’s (or in prison, or retired, or dead). Parker never seems to think about any of them again afterwards other than Noelle (in Firebreak). If he had all these ultracompetent fully reliable pros to call upon, would he really be working with the guys we see him with over the remaining six novels?
Backflash to me is a transitional story, between the old and new eras of Parker–but since it was written after Comeback, and since Westlake would be almost constitutionally incapable of referring to anything he ever wrote as a prequel, it can only be one on a conjectural, damn near subtextual level.
Although, it suddenly occurs to me–Backflash? Transpose the two syllables in that compound word, and what do you get? In The Hunter, Parker scornfully remarks “I hope you people have fun with your words.” Nobody ever had more fun with them than Donald E. Westlake. And perversely, when we miss the joke, he may sometimes enjoy it all the more.
Anyway, it’s something we can have fun arguing about in the comments section. After I do a bit of synopsizing. If you were betting this would be a multi-part review, you were definitely on the money. Hands off the table, ladies and gentleman, around and around she goes….
We come in, once more, at the tail-end of a job that has gone less than smoothly for Parker. He and a few fellow pros have just pulled a job reminiscent of the one he pulled with Mal Resnick in The Hunter. Some rogue soldiers were selling stolen high-tech weaponry to the highest bidder, in this case terrorists. Parker’s string wants the weapons to sell and the cash to spend. They got all of the first, and some of the second, but they weren’t the only ones who knew about the exchange, and the cops who busted up the party are disinclined to view Parker’s little company of freebooters as a freelance counter-terrorism squad.
As Parker flees the scene with a guy named Marshall Howell, who brought him into this operation, their car goes off the road, and rolls down a hill. Parker is mainly undamaged, but Howell is busted up pretty bad, and trapped in the car. The pursuing lawmen opted to pursue the truck with the military hardware for now, but somebody will be checking up on them soon. Parker has to go, and he dislikes loose ends. Does Howell need to die?
Howell knows he’s going to jail, and he assures Parker he’d never talk to the law. Parker is conflicted–a fellow professional has certain rights when you’re on a job with him. All of which come second to Parker’s right to avoid capture or death himself. Howell talks to him just the right way, joking, congenial, quietly tough. It’s a close call, but don’t make murder the answer to everything. He tells Howell he’ll see him in twenty years. Howell says he’ll be rested. Parker gets away with 140k. His remaining partners can sell the weapons for their share.
And that really should be it for a while, since Parker doesn’t like to work too often, and that’s more than enough cash to tide him and Claire over awhile. He gets back to the house in New Jersey, and Claire, who is happy to see him and the money. The paper says Howell died from his injuries–Parker knows he wasn’t that badly hurt. He wouldn’t have died unless somebody leaned on him hard to identify his associates, and obviously he didn’t talk, since the cops haven’t come knocking. Chalk one up for honor among thieves. And knowing she came that close to losing her man puts Claire as much in the mood as Parker always is after a job is done. All brushes with death do for Parker is make him wax existential.
Claire pointed at the newspaper. “That could have been you.”
“It always could,” he said. “So far, it isn’t. I go away, and I come back.”
She looked at him. “Every time?”
“Except the last time,” he said.
She put her arms around him, touched her lips to the spot where the pulse beat in his throat. “Later,” she said, “let’s have a fire.”
So afterwards, he goes to stash the money in several empty vacation homes nearby, and comes back to find that somebody claiming to be Howell left a message for him. The area code is for Albany. Since he’s pretty sure that’s not where people go when they die, he’s not surprised to find himself talking to someone else–someone who has information about him he doesn’t like just anyone to have. Somebody named Cathman, who wants to meet with him–he was going to work with Howell on something, and now that Howell is permanently unavailable, he needs somebody in the same line of work.
So they need at the Amtrak station in Rhinecliff. Parker is once again weighing the option of discretionary murder, but as we’ve seen before (The Jugger, for example), he doesn’t like to close a case that way when he doesn’t have all the information. How much does this guy know, and what is he really after? You don’t want to pull the trigger before you know all the potential consequences. So he’ll talk to the guy.
His name is Hilliard Cathman. Short, fat, balding. Spent most of his life as a consultant for the state government, now semi-retired, doing freelance consulting. And increasingly ignored, on a subject he has very strong feelings about, namely state-sanctioned gambling. Parker is pretty much indifferent to the social effects of gambling, generally agrees people would be better off without it, but since when do people only like what’s good for them?
“My question was, do you gamble?”
“May I ask why not?”
What did this have to do with anything? But Parker had learned, over the years, that when somebody wants to tell you his story, you have to let him tell it his own way. Try to push him along, speed it up, you’ll just confuse him and slow him down.
So the question is, why not gamble? Parker’d never thought about it, he just knew it was pointless and uninteresting. He said, “Turn myself over to random events? Why? The point is to try to control events, and they’ll still get away from you anyway. Why make things worse? Jump out a window, see if a mattress truck goes by. Why? Only if the room’s on fire.”
Cathman loves this answer, though subsequent events will reveal he’s gambling with much higher stakes than any state-sanctioned casino would allow.
(Sidebar: Regarding Parker’s avowed dislike for gambling, I am tempted to bring up his frequent visits to a casino in San Juan with Claire in The Green Eagle Score, and before that with Crystal in The Handle, though to be sure the latter was strictly to case the joint, and the former just because it got Claire in that mood he likes so much. But he is in fact playing cards for money with some fellow heisters in Nobody Runs Forever. I suppose you could say that was just to be social. Westlake famously loved that kind of socializing, and at least in a private game you only have to beat your fellow players.)
So the upshot is that Cathman wants to be the finger on a riverboat casino heist. Albany has okayed a four month trial run, with one boat–formerly the Spirit of Biloxi, now the Spirit of the Hudson. They didn’t have to change the name much. They can easily change it back again, if things don’t work out, but Cathman is sure the boat will bring in a lot of money–enough to make it worth Parker’s while. He’s in a position to give Parker all kinds of useful information about that boat. He says he only wants ten percent of the take.
Ten percent is about what the finger would normally get (if he gets anything), but Parker feels like that’s not nearly enough money to make a guy turn his back on everything he ever was. He smells something rotten in the air, but he doesn’t know what it is. As we’ve seen before, when Parker is confused like this, he is compelled to seek answers.
He doesn’t need to work now, and the easiest thing to do would be to just get rid of somebody who already knows too much about him (that he knows the phone number of the house in New Jersey is itself enough reason to kill him). But first he needs to understand Cathman, his plan, his motives, before he can know what to do about him. And it is a potentially good score. He asks Claire if she’ll do some background research on Cathman, which she agrees to happily (she was worried for a moment she’d be dragged into a hit). And there’s guys he can call, so he calls them. Might as well get things lined up.
They’re good guys. Mike Carlow and Dan Wycza. They meet up with Parker in Denver. Seems like Parker hasn’t seen either of them since they took out the Tyler mob in Butcher’s Moon (they definitely haven’t seen each other since then). Wycza says it’s been a long time when he meets Carlow (care to specify how long, Dan?). Mike totaled another race car, needs a stake to build a new one. The hulking muscular Dan just wants to take a break from his pro-wrestling career, stop pretending to get beat up by bleached blondes with big hair and capes (yeah, definitely the Ric Flair era, but that doesn’t narrow things down much, does it?). Dan himself is a blonde, but given his size, I doubt anyone ever brings that nitpick up with him.
Dan is excited at the possibility of robbing the erstwhile Spirit of Biloxi–he lost some money on that tub. He says he automatically cased it when he was there, just a professional habit. Security’s fairly tight, lots of guards, metal detector, bag searches. The three of them bat around ideas on how to take it, and keep running into roadblocks. For example, how do you get the guns aboard? How do you get the cash off? How do you get yourself off? Parker still doesn’t like boats much–to him, a boat is a prison cell in the middle of the water, where you can be seen for miles.
Parker finally hits on an idea that would involve Lou Sternberg, who we met in Plunder Squad. He’s just the right type to play a surly anti-gambling state politician. Parker and Dan can play his bodyguards. The show is shaping up nicely (No way Grofield wouldn’t be in on this if he were available, so something definitely happened there). Just have to round out the cast a little. Maybe an ingenue?
And a river rat. Parker needs somebody who knows the Hudson between Albany and Poughkeepsie, the route the boat takes every night. Somebody with his own boat, who isn’t too picky about the jobs he takes. He gets pointed to an ex-con named Hanzen, in his sixties, a born loser, rueful but resigned with regards to his lot in life (too bad for him this isn’t a Dortmunder novel).
He lives in a town that suits him to a T, and as Parker looks around for him, we get a bit of Stark history. To some extent, all of New York State is Westlake country, and under any name, he’s never on surer footing when he’s describing it to us, in all its many-splendored grandeur, if you want to call it that.
He was in Hudson today, a town along the river of the same name, another twenty miles north and upstream from Rhinecliff, where he’d met Cathman at the railroad station. The town stretched up a long gradual slope from the river, with long parallel streets lined like stripes up the hill. At the bottom was a slum where there used to be a port, back in the nineteenth century, when the whalers came this far up the Hudson with their catch to the plants beside the river where the whale oil and blubber and other sellable materials were carved and boiled and beaten out of the cadavers, to be shipped to the rest of America along the Erie Canal and the Great Lakes and the midwest rivers.
The whalers and the whale industry and the commercial uses of the waterways were long gone, but the town was still here. It had become poor, and still was. At one point, early in the twentieth century, it was for a while the whorehouse capital of the northeast, and less poor, until a killjoy state government stepped in to make it virtuous and poor again. Now it was a drug distribution hub, out of New York City via road or railroad, and for the legitimate world it was an antiques center.
(And perhaps Westlake lived long enough to see the beginning of the next chapter, when Hudson was revitalized by an influx of gay people who discovered it while looking for antiques. I doubt he’d have been surprised, since we’re told in Backflash that “Being poor for so long, Hudson hadn’t seen much modernization, and so, without trying, had become quaint.” In 2005, Hudson’s more affluent new residents (of all sexualities) successfully opposed the building of a cement factory there that would have employed a lot of poor people. Still a fairly large prison facility there, though. And so the long historical parade of ironies continues in Hudson, except on Gay Pride Day, when there’s a much more enjoyable parade.)
Parker finds Hanzen outside a bar called the Lido, the one paragraph description of which makes me wonder yet again why the hell Westlake never won a Pulitzer (read it yourself, if I put all the good stuff in here, the review would be longer than the book and the estate would be on me like a ton of bricks). Oh right, it’s crime fiction, I forgot. Not to be taken seriously. Not like an 80’s novel about the Depression set in Albany (not exclusively Westlake country), mainly centered around a guilty good-natured alcoholic bum on the skids (isn’t that David Goodis country?) with a terse compound word title, that does in fact have a lot of crime and violence in it, and maybe I’ll never understand the rules of the Pulitzer game, but Westlake would be glad they gave an Irishman a break.
To me, this section of the book is more about setting the scene than the action, so let me sum the action up briefly–Hanzen takes Parker to his boat, shows him around the river, they talk in guarded terms about the job. Hanzen says he’d be happy to come pick them up after they do whatever they might be doing there which is absolutely none of his business, but he’s not doing any James Bond rescues, let’s understand that right now. Parker says he never expects any James Bond rescues, which is kind of funny given what happened the last time he robbed a casino, but never mind. Hanzen is revealed to be a part-time pot-farmer, growing his product in bags of peat moss cunningly concealed at the river’s edge, and only accessible by boat. He is also revealed to have some rather disreputable associates who ride Harleys, cultivate beards and beerguts. They give Parker the fisheye, and Parker has to tell one of them to move his bike if he doesn’t want to get run over. He moves his bike.
I don’t know this particular stretch of the river terribly well, but I know the Hudson intimately (swimming in something certainly qualifies as intimacy), and love her immoderately, but not blindly. Pete Seeger wasn’t kidding when he called her a dirty stream. I walk along certain desolate sections of her with my dog sometimes, stretches of urban shoreline still waiting for the Parks Department to ‘improve’ them, and you just never know what’s going to crop up. Jury-rigged docks nailed together out of found wood, the corpse of a ten foot sturgeon killed by a boat propeller, flotsam and jetsam from passing ships, all manner of wildlife (not all of it human), and while I personally have never found a dead body, I know people who have. It’s not uncommon. At all. (Oh, and a humpback whale swam under the George Washington Bridge the other day, but I missed it.)
Claire’s research has resolved one mystery about Cathman–his roots are in New England, and a lot of his ancestors were ministers and such. The old Puritan strain. That’s why he’s got a bee in his bonnet about gambling. There are a lot of very good logical arguments he can employ against it, but Parker knows when it comes to people, emotions are what motivate, not logic. Emotions and money, and money is winning out where the gambling issue is concerned. Not enough people in New York with uptight clergymen in their family trees.
Cathman’s consulting business is a polite pretense at continued relevance; he’s getting very little work–just paying his loyal longtime secretary and renting his nicely appointed office with a view of the capital building probably eats up all he makes and more. Another relic of the past, hanging on for dear life in a tenuous present (you do meet a lot of them in Richard Stark novels).
Stark knows what Cathman’s office looks like because Parker goes there, uninvited, and Cathman isn’t happy about this, but when you entice a wolf with fresh meat, don’t be surprised when he shows up at your door. Parker wants to goad Cathman, test him, see if he can get at the truth about his motives–but he also needs some information–wants to get the name of a New York politician, not too well-known, who is short, stout, and surly. Somebody who answers to the same general description as Lou Sternberg. Cathman has a brief attack of conscience here–he doesn’t want anyone hurt (and yet he is instigating an armed robbery of a crowded pleasure boat). But he coughs up the name. Morton Kotkind, an assemblyman from Brooklyn.
Parker meets up with Wycza and Carlow again, this time at a restaurant just above Yonkers, with a nice view of the New Jersey Palisades. He’s using the Edward Lynch name again. We don’t find out what names Dan and Mike are using, but under any name, they’re up for a good score. Lou Sternberg is in, that makes four. Parker says they need a fifth–a woman. First time in the series he’s set out to recruit a female heister, but this isn’t your usual smash and grab operation. They need somebody to play a specific role. She has to be pretty, appealing, but also she has to be of slight build–somebody who can do Mimi from La Boheme to perfection. Somebody who looks frail–but isn’t.
It’s actually Mike who brings up Noelle Braselle–he worked a job once with her and her old boyfriend, Tommy Carpenter. Parker didn’t think of her because he thought she was still working with Tommy, and that would make it a six-way split–hey, things are getting liberated here! Brenda Mackey didn’t get her own share of the take in the last book, and she worked harder than anyone. Well, I guess that’s because she wasn’t actually there for the heist, just before and after, or maybe there’s some heister rule that married couples are a package deal, but free love is more expensive. Maybe we don’t need to talk about whether armed robbery is an equal opportunity employer. (The next cabinet sure won’t be.)
Mike knows something Parker doesn’t–Noelle and Tommy split up. After they got picked up by the state troopers in Plunder Squad, Tommy got seriously spooked, gave up the racket for good, split to the Caribbean–scared straight. This actually tracks pretty well with what we saw of Tommy in that book–Tommy mocked those two troopers they had to put on ice during the job, and one of them quietly promised him that they’d have him singing a different tune when they got him, and they did. He had lots of nerve, but the thing about people with nerve is that they’re nervous. Once they break, they stay broken. He never wants to see another State Trooper again in his life.
Noelle has something better than nerve–she’s got class. Dan isn’t sure if he knows her, and Mike says if he’d ever once met her, he’d remember. Parker remembers her very well–the one that didn’t crack when the law got her–very sexy, very good at role-playing, very cool under pressure–she’d be perfect. They have their ingenue. The play is cast. Time to get it on the road, work out the kinks (such a pity Grofield wasn’t in on this one).
The job is real to him now–he has the scent of the prey in his nostrils. There’s definitely something screwy about Cathman, but he can deal with that when it comes (he’s already pretty much assuming he’ll have to kill the guy). This isn’t about sizing up a potential threat anymore, and it’s clearly not just about the money, since he’s got plenty for now. It’s about the hunt. The one thing Parker can’t live without. And just to prove that it’s fated to happen, this is the very moment their quarry chooses to make its entrance to the happy hunting ground.
Wycza said, “I smell my money.”
They looked at him, and he was gazing out the window, and when they turned that way the ship was just sliding into view from the left. On the gleaming blue-gray water, among the few sailboats, against the dark gray drapery of the Palisades, it looked like any small cruise ship, white and sparkly, a big oval wedding cake, except in the wrong setting. It should be in the Caribbean, with Tommy Carpenter, not steaming up the Hudson River beside gray stone cliffs, north out of New York City.
“I can’t read the name,” Carlow said. “You suppose they changed it already? Spirit of the Hudson?”
“They changed that name,” Wycza assured him, “half an hour out of Biloxi.”
Parker looked at the ship, out in the center channel. A big shiny white empty box, going upriver to be filled with money. For the first time, he was absolutely sure they were going to do it. Seeing it out there, big and slow and unaware, he knew it belonged to him. He could almost walk over to it, on the water.
Well, sure. All it takes to walk on water is faith. But just to be on the safe side, they’re going to need that river rat and his boat. And of course there’s going to be a few unforeseen complications, people butting in where they aren’t wanted, amateurs screwing the pooch, and Parker will have to improvise a blue streak when his perfect plan breaks down. I mentioned this is a Richard Stark novel, right?
Now all I have to do now is deal with the remaining three parts of the book in Part 2, but it worked okay last time. I sort of assumed this book was longer than Comeback, but in fact I have Mysterious Press editions of both novels (paperback for Backflash), and both come to exactly 292 pages. But this one is very different, much more detail packed into every page, because it’s set in a very real world that Westlake knows, and loves, and laments. All at the same time. Whether that time is the early 80’s or the late 90’s. Or both. On the river that flows both ways, all things are possible.