Review: Backflash, Part 2

Wycza, in shorts and sneakers, was doing push-ups on the weedy grass in front of the cottage. Noelle, seeing him as they drove in, laughed and said, “Is this supposed to be my birthday?”

“Dan Wycza,” Parker told her, and Carlow said “For the heavy lifting.”

“I can see that,” she said.  “Is Lou Sternberg here?”

“Not yet.  He’s in Brooklyn, watching a guy for later.”

Wycza got to his feet when he saw the car coming.  He offered a small wave and went into the house, while Carlow parked the Lexus.  They got out, Noelle carrying her backpack slung over one shoulder, and went into the house, where Wycza now stood in the living room, rubbing his head and neck with a towel.

Parker said, “Noelle Braselle, Dan Wycza.”

“Hi,” Wycza said, and Noelle frowned at him and said, “I know you.  Don’t I know you?”

Grinning, Wycza said “I wish you did, honey.”

Perhaps feeling a need to step up their game, graphically speaking, after the rather disappointing cover art for such an epochal return as Comeback, Mysterious Press hit upon a nifty idea for the dust jackets of the next four Stark novels.  These are now generally known as ‘The Matchbook Covers’ and you can easily see why if you scroll down to Part 1 of this review.  This design was presumably inspired by the ‘flash’ in Backflash, even though there is no actual fire in the book, merely the brief suggestion of it.  (The staple at the bottom of each new matchbook, seen on both the front and back covers, was a nice touch, I thought.)

As you can see up top, French publisher Rivages (their thriller imprint, as opposed to noir, don’t ask me why), did what foreign houses so often did with American cover art, and borrowed the idea, while doing their own thing with it (rather strikingly).  Others focused more on the gambling aspect, and some cover art just can’t be figured out at all from the standpoint of its relationship to the story, no matter how hard you try, so don’t try.  And that’s all the prologue you’re getting this time, so let’s strike a match and shed some light on what’s left of this one.

Part 2 is short and uneventful, and mainly about Parker acquiring the equipment and personnel needed to pull the job.  He’s got to come to an understanding with Hanzen, the ex-con who lives in Hudson, a town alongside the Hudson (that must get confusing).  He’s the one with the boat, and the know-how.  And a bleakly philosophical attitude towards crime and life–crime being the only life he’s ever known.  Crime, and prison.

Hanzen said, “There’s fellas, and you know them, too, that like to be in there.  They won’t admit it, they probably don’t even know it themselves, but they like it.  They like not having to be in charge of their own life, not having that chance to fuck up all the time.  Life is regular, simple routines, food not so bad, you can pick some okay guys to be your pals, you don’t have to be tense any more.”

Parker drove. Traffic was light, mostly pick-up trucks and delivery vans.  Hanzen said, “You get into a little job with a fella like that, he’s just waiting the chance to make that mistake, screw it up just enough so he can say, you got me, officer, and back into the nest he goes.  And you with him.”

“They exist,” Parker agreed.

And Hanzen’s point is that he’s not one of those fellas, he wants to stay on the outside, which is fine by Parker, except that of course Hanzen should know there are never any guarantees.  Hanzen knows they’re going to try and take the casino boat out on the river, Parker doesn’t need to tell him that; he’s not getting a cut of the take, just a straight-up payment for services rendered.  Hanzen picks them up from the boat, drops them off on the shore, gets his money.  If Hanzen sees any sign of trouble on that boat, he won’t go near it.  If there’s trouble on the boat he can see from a distance, the job has already been soured, and he wouldn’t be able to do anything anyway.  So they have an understanding.

They rent an isolated vacation cottage along the river.  They steal a wheelchair designed to serve as a commode on wheels (it will, in the event, serve as a bank on wheels).  Parker gets Cathman to obtain some blank ID forms for state troopers, and he pushes him harder, still trying to figure out why Cathman is doing all this.  Cathman still refuses to come clean.

Parker scopes out the boat, and has Carlow and Braselle start going onboard regularly, posing as a paralyzed but courageous rich girl and her chauffeur.  And her commode on wheels, and after a while the security men just stop checking the receptacle underneath.

Another thing that makes me think this story is taking place much earlier than the date of publication is that Parker is still buying guns from shifty guys operating legit non-gun businesses as a front (who seriously thinks anyone was doing this in the late 20th century in America?  Our growing obsession with Second Amendment rights has taken all the fun out of writing heist novels where the protagonists have to covertly obtain firearms they hardly even use).

This one’s named Maurice Fox, and he’s got a hardware store. In this case the hardware consists of a S&W 357 Magnum model 27, and a Colt Python, same caliber (and of course Parker takes the Python).  It would have been two S&W’s, except one had the serial number removed, and since Wycza and Parker will be posing as a security detail for a politician, they need to look legit.  I’d say they both look pretty legit.  And quite similar to each other, which is the point.

Parker thinks about testing them, but if they actually need to be fired on the job–on the river–Hanzen will not be coming over to get them.  And there’s that old routine about how if they don’t use the guns on the job, Fox will buy them back at half price.  Was that ever really a thing?  I have no idea.

A hard-working Korean immigrant operating a print shop in suburban Pittsburgh turns the blank IDs into real-looking filled-out ID’s.   They steal an official New York State vehicle from a lot in Albany.  Lou Sternberg pens a very convincing letter on official stationary to the company that runs the boat.  It’s purportedly from State Assemblyman Morton Kotkind, who has been opposed to legalized gambling in the past, but is now willing to reconsider his position–he will need a guided tour of the casino boat, while it is in operation, during this six-month trial run.

The real Assemblyman Kotkind will be temporarily indisposed at the time–Lou will see to that.  Non-lethally, of course.  He’ll just suddenly become very ill, courtesy of something Lou slipped in his drink at a courthouse district bar.  Noelle posed as his secretary over the phone, the tour’s all set up, and as Part 2 ends, the heist begins.

(Sidebar: But before we get to that–you see the little exchange up top, between Noelle and Dan.  Westlake did something a little different here for a Stark novel.  He gave us a criminal meet-cute in Part 2.  It’s not too obvious, but it’s not really subtextual either.  They click from the moment they meet, all the more since Noelle recognizes the bemuscled blonde behemoth as part-time pro wrestler, Jack Strongarm; says she really enjoyed the way he pretended to get beat up by clowns he could tear in half without half-trying.  He’s flattered, and more than a little turned on, but they keep it professional while the job’s going on.

Noelle is later seen musing that she might like to find a new guy who is on the bend like her, only more reliable in the clutch than her former beau, Tommy.  The health-conscious Dan is clearly interested in therapeutic sex with somebody in the near future, but most of the women he meets wouldn’t appreciate the more lucrative of his two professions.  Last we see of them, they’re driving off in the same car.  And this could be the beginning of a beautiful friendship.  Or not.  Stark never was much of a matchmaker.  If they adapted this one in the near future, I’d say maybe Anna Kendrick or Emmy Rossum as Noelle and William Colin Morrissey for Dan. Because you can’t teach that.  Back to the boat.)

Part 3 is the round robin chapter this time, as it usually was for the First Sixteen books, though Westlake’s still not adhering strictly to the old system.  Ten chapters, ten different POV’s, but as with Comeback, individual chapters sometimes have more than one POV character.  I find this approach less pleasingly elegant than that of the earlier books, but it’s less obtrusive here than it was in Comeback.  And as it happens, the heist takes place entirely in Part 3, so we’ve got something like 85 pages devoted to a heist here, which is pretty rare in these books.

As always, Stark wants to get into the heads of other people, and contrast them with Parker. But since four of these characters are reliable level-headed professional heisters, who have worked with Parker before–the only people whose mental processes mirror his to any great extent, and therefore make for a less interesting contrast–Stark is also contrasting these more relatably human criminals with variably honest non-criminals, with the sad sack half-criminal Hanzen, and most of all with one jumpy dangerous amateur trying to horn in on their operation.

As we’ve seen in the past, this is the type of character who invariably gives Parker the biggest headaches, because such people have completely lost sight of who they were, if they ever knew to begin with.  They are the wild cards that keep ruining his perfect plans.  And somehow that never works out well for them.  But they keep trying.

The amateur this time is a cop named Ray Becker.  He was never much good as a cop, or at anything else, but as we all know, a high level of professionalism has never been an absolute requirement for a career in law enforcement, and neither has good judgment–looking to supplement his income, Ray got himself involved with some bad people, who then gave him the shaft, and if his role in that comes out, he’s going to jail.  Certain official persons are already looking hard at him, and he needs a lot of money, fast, so he can get out of there, start fresh somewhere else (as he already has, after he made the same mistake in the army).

He was the one who got to Howell, right after the car crash that started this book. He was also the one who (as Parker guessed) was pushing the badly injured Howell too hard for information–not so that he could arrest Howell’s partners, but so he could kill them and take the money.  But he ended up killing Howell instead–just after Howell gave him Cathman’s name.  He followed Cathman to Parker, he figured out what they were after, and now he’s at the cabin by the river, waiting for Parker and the others to come back with his money.  In all probability, he’s waiting to die.  But he could easily take several members of the string down with him.  Parker is planning to ditch their guns in the river before they land.

But before that all comes to a head, there’s a lot of supporting characters to meet. Chapter 2 is about Susan Cahill, a tall blonde former flight attendant, who is now working in customer relations for the company that runs the casino boat.  She left the airline because she fell in love with a banker named Culver (heh), and he turned out to be married, and that understandably soured her with regards to love, and men, but she feels like she’s got the right end of the stick now.  Just use her looks to manipulate men, string them along, and get what she wants.  She thinks that’s power.

So she has to pretend to like this unpleasant little man, Assemblyman Kotkind, and treat him like visiting royalty, and flirt with him lightly, which he greatly enjoys, while not being the least bit fooled, because of course he’s not Assemblyman Kotkind, and the two hulking state troopers in civilian clothes accompanying him are not state troopers.

Then we’re in Dan Wycza’s head for Chapter 3, the very last time we’ll ever be in his head, and he’s thinking he’d love to take this Cahill woman to bed.  Sex with her would be highly therapeutic.  Dan, as we learned all the way back in The Score, is a health nut, but to him there’s nothing nuts about being concerned with your health.

Health was extremely important to Dan Wycza.  It was, as the man said, all we’ve got.  His body was important to him the wa Mike Carlow considered those race cars of his important.  Take care of it, keep it finely tuned, and it will do the job for you.  The way a car nut likes to tinker with the engines, the fuel mixture, the tire pressure, all those details, that’s the way Wycza took care of himself.  His diet was specific and controlled, his exercise lengthy and carefully planned.  He traveled with so many pills, so many minerals and herbs and dietary supplements, that he seemed like either a hypochondriac or the healthiest-looking invalid in history, but it was all just to keep the the machine well-tuned.

And sex was part of it.  Simple uncomplicated sex was good for both the body and the mind.  There was nothing like rolling around with a good willing woman to keep the blood flowing and the mental attitude perked up.  A woman like this Susan Cahill, for instance.

Pity it wasn’t going to happen.  This woman would never fuck anything but power, or at least her idea of power.  At the moment, to her, Dan Wycza, aka Trooper Helsing, was just a spear career, part of the furniture, a nothing. Later, he’d be something, all right, but it wasn’t likely to be something she’d find a turn-on.  Not likely.

Sternberg’s role here is crucial, and he savors every minute of it–he’s got to persuade the captain of this tub to let his ‘guards’ keep their weapons, when there’s a firm rule that no one may be armed onboard except security.  Parker is really in charge, of course–but Wycza is amazed at how he pretends to be cowed by Sternberg’s pretended rage at his suggestion the captain can call their barracks to confirm he and his partner are not allowed to be disarmed while on duty. His factfinding mission here is not to be leaked to the press!  Calling the barracks would compromise that.  Don’t you understand that, you fool?

Dan never would have believed Parker could take that kind of tongue-lashing, even to get several hundred thousand dollars.  However, once Ms. Cahill has taken the captain away for a brief lecture on corporate priorities and how some rules can be overlooked for the sake of good public relations, Parker finds a way to remind Sternberg that he’s still the director of this play, and Lou stops with the scenery chewing.  And they get to keep their guns.

Skipping over another chapter with Ray, Chapter 5 is from the POV of Greg Manchester, eager young cub reporter for the Poughkeepsie Journal.  (This is a real newspaper, as you see, and I am stubbornly italicizing both words in its name, when Westlake just as stubbornly would refuse to italicize the name of whatever community the newspaper served, and I don’t know who’s right, but this is my blog).

Greg is there undercover, because Avenue Resorts, the Houston-based company that runs this boat and many other gambling-related things (and has, of course, a connection to organized crime, but what doesn’t these days?), loves publicity, but wants to control every aspect of it.  He wants to do an unfiltered story, human interest–not an exposé, because he assumes there’s nothing to expose.  Basically, he just thinks it would be more fun to sneak on the boat as a private citizen, armed with a tiny Minolta camera.  More fun than he thinks.

He notices Nicole immediately, of course, like all the other young straight males onboard –he figures she’ll be a great angle for the story, this beautiful brave sickly young woman in a wheelchair.  He snaps multiple pics of her.  Very photogenic.  Her chauffeur rather less so, but he’ll be good for local color.

He also notices ‘Assemblyman Kotkind,’ but when somebody tells him that is Assemblyman Kotkind, he’s confused–because he’s met Assemblyman Kotkind, and that ain’t him.  Greg is there incognito.  He can’t go to anyone in authority without blowing his cover, but suppose this is important? The chauffeur looks like a guy who’d know what to do in a situation like this.  He heads over to ask him for advice.

So now we’re in Mike Carlow’s head–this is his third and final appearance in the series, same as for Dan.  And as with Dan, we get the obligatory rundown of the odd little quirks of character that make him who he is.  I’ve always neglected Mike in past review, and this is my last chance to talk about him, so let’s get it out of the way at last–he’s not necessarily someone Ralph Nader would approve of.  Which somehow makes me approve of him all the more.

For Mike Carlow, everything related back to the track and the fast cars.  He’d driven his first race when he was fourteen, won for the first time when he was sixteen, and had never much cared about anything else.  For instance, he’d figure it out early that the amount of gasoline in the gas tank affected the car’s center of gravity, constantly shifting the center of gravity as the fuel was used up, so while still in high school he’d designed a car that wouldn’t have that problem because there wasn’t any gas tank; the car was built around a frame of hollow aluminum tubing, and the tubing held the gas.  When someone told him it was crazy to want to drive a car where he’d be completely surrounded by gasoline, he’d said “So what?”  He still couldn’t see what was wrong with the idea, and didn’t understand why no official at any track in America would permit such a design into a race.

(Mike could have been based on any number of crazed grease monkeys Westlake grew up reading about, but this guy here seems like a pretty fair candidate).

His and Noelle’s part of the job is simple but risky–the money’s going into that compartment under her wheelchair, that would normally serve as a commode for people who can no longer control their bodily functions.  This way, even if Parker and the others get stopped out on the river, there’ll be no evidence linking them to the crime (unless the river cops have even sketchy physical descriptions of Parker, Lou, and Dan, in which case they’re screwed).  They just have to hang out, enjoy the scene, pick up the cash, and get off the boat the moment it docks.

Mike can always tell when a job is on the verge of going sour, and this sixth sense of his is going nuts when this Manchester kid comes up to them.  The problem, you might say, solves itself–the kid tells them he’s a reporter.  He tells them that short irritable man being shown around as a visiting dignitary isn’t who he claims to be.  He tells them he’s got pictures of ‘Jane Ann’ for his story.  He’s a trusting soul.  Hopefully it will not be necessary to separate that soul from his body.

They get him out on deck, and Mike saps him from behind.  He gets stowed on a lifeboat.  Not too gently, either.  Neither Mike nor Noelle is feeling terribly gentle towards him at present time.  Noelle sharply tells Mike not to kill him, but get that camera.   Close call for her–if he hadn’t responded to the romantic image of herself she’d created for the job, he wouldn’t have snapped the pictures that might later have put her face on wanted posters–but he also wouldn’t have confided in them, thus neutralizing himself as a threat to the operation.  He’ll have a bad headache when he wakes up.  She could not care less.  He will also have a far better story to write for his paper than he could have ever imagined possible.  She doesn’t care about that either.

And next we’re in Lou Sternberg’s head.  He is loving this job–it’s making up for that art theft fiasco Parker got him involved with in Plunder Squad.  He’s very definitely enjoying his eye-level view of Ms. Cahill’s bosom while she pretends to find him attractive.  But it has its drawbacks–he has to pretend to be this bad-tempered Brooklyn politician for five hours.  As he thinks to himself “He actually was bad-tempered at times, he had to admit, but he’d never been a politician or a Brooklynite, and he certainly hoped he had never been a boor.”

Lou Sternberg’s friends back in England know him as a capital fellow.  He decided long ago that London life suited him, and as a result he never pulls jobs in the United Kingdom, where he spends most of his existence, in his charming little townhouse at Number 2, Montpelier Gardens, SW 6, its gardens enclosed by ancient stone walls.  (Yes, of course I looked it up, and they didn’t look so ancient to me.  And Montpelier Gardens is not in SW 6, but you know there is no 221 B Baker St. at all, to this very day.)

So all Lou really cares about is maintaining a large-enough tax-free income to continue his  gentlemanly lifestyle, working maybe once every two years or so, and he figures that he can support himself another year or two with the bit over 60k (in dollars) he expects to get from this job.  And pretty hard to see how he could do that if we’re talking late 1990’s dollars, converted into late 1990’s British pounds sterling.  But he grows his own cucumbers and brussels sprouts, so I suppose anything’s possible.

Lou doesn’t like being rude for rudeness’s own sake, but as he thinks to himself–

There were reasons for it.  First, the original was like this.  Second, bad temper keeps other people off balance, and they never believe the person being difficult is lying in some way; rudeness is always seen as bona fide.  And the third reason was the money room.

(Maybe he should have run for President.  Oh wait, that would mean living in America.  Never mind.)

So having bluffed his way into the captain agreeing to let his guards keep their guns, now he has to bluff Susan Cahill into letting them see the money room, which is supposed to be kept locked for the entire trip.  The money goes down chutes from the gaming tables to the place where it is counted and stored. Nobody goes in, nobody comes out, until the ship is safely docked back in Albany.

But in character as the unreasonable irascible Kotkind, he reacts to her refusal to grant him this favor with characteristic paranoia–what are you hiding from the people of New York State, Ms. Cahill?  She knows she’s not supposed to do this.  But she also knows she’s supposed to keep the VIP happy, and avoid any unpleasant scenes.  She can’t flirt her way out of this one.  Nor can she go to the captain, because she already talked him into bending on the no guns rule.  She thought she was playing Kotkind all this time, while Sternberg was playing her. And now the game is about to end.

And finally, we get into the mind of someone who is precisely what he seems to be, namely George Twill, fifty-one, former bank clerk from Albany.  He got downsized, and after a very frightening spate of unemployment, he got a job counting money on a casino boat, and he’s liking it just fine.  He’s interesting to us, because he’s the one who is supposed to hit the panic button (that’s what they call it) if something goes wrong down there in the money room.  If he does that this time, Parker and his pals are going to prison, and we wouldn’t want that, because books about George Twill would not be very entertaining.

So George watches with mild interest as Ms. Cahill brings three strangers into the money room, where no strangers should be. One is introduced as an Assemblyman, the others are Troopers Renfield and Helsing.  Pete, the cashier, thinks this is funny.  Apparently Ms. Cahill isn’t a reader or a devotee of horror movies, because she doesn’t get the joke.  (Probably neither did Parker, which is why he didn’t say anything about it to the guy who made up their fake ID’s).

And all of a sudden, the joke turns serious.  He’s lying on the floor, his head ringing from a sudden blow.  These people are thieves.  Two of them are armed. It’s a robbery.  He’s not supposed to be in this movie.  Somebody in central casting screwed up.  He’s supposed to be the hero now, push the button.  But if he does that, he’ll die.

Ms. Cahill still thinks she’s in the movie about the sexy tough-as-nails PR woman.  She confronts Parker.  Remember the first chapter of The Hunter? Where we’re told women who see Parker instinctively sense he’s a bastard, and those huge hands of his were made for slapping?  She somehow missed that vital detail.

He slapped her, left-handed, open-handed, but hard, the sound almost like a baseball being hit by a bat.  All of them in the room jumped at the sound. George and Pete and Helen and Ruth and Sam.  The three robbers didn’t jump.

Susan Cahill staggered from the slap, and stared at the non-trooper, who stepped closer to her and said, as though he really wanted to know the answer, “Are those your teeth?”

She gaped at him.  “What?”

“Are those your teeth?”

She didn’t know the reason for the question, but she was suddenly afraid not to answer.  “Yes.”

“Do you want to keep them?”

The answer was smaller, more defeated. “Yes.”

“Hands behind your back.”

I don’t know who Westlake was getting even with here.  Maybe nobody, maybe I’m just imagining it.  The passage has bothered me ever since I read it, because there is in fact very little violence against women in most of Westlake’s earlier work–even when a woman is hurt or killed, it’s usually not described, just implied.  Cahill doesn’t seem like a terribly pleasant or principled person, I’m sure we can all think of modern-day real-life equivalents, often in quite high places, many of whom could use a good face-slapping–but why is she humbled this way?

It bothers me because I just know there are guys out there reading this passage and thinking “Yeah, Parker showed that lippy broad!” But I’m not one of those guys. I voted for the lippy broad. I’ll spend the rest of my life wishing she’d won. And there’s nothing Westlake likes better than a lippy broad, long as she knows what she’s talking about, as so many do.  What’s being communicated here?  He wouldn’t put this in there for no reason.

I think it’s because, like so many people in these books, she’s deluded about who she is, what her position in life is.  She’s a lackey, a cog in a machine, just as much as George Twill, but she’s a cog with delusions of grandeur.  All through this part of the book, we’ve seen her using her body, her face, her feminine wiles, to get powerful men to do what she wants, on behalf of the powerful men she works for.  And she thinks that makes her powerful.  She honestly doesn’t see what a crock that is.

Some people, men and women alike, are all about control.  But without real power, control is an illusion.  Real power can only come from inside yourself. You think you have a certain guaranteed position in the hierarchy, and then you find out it’s just a facade, and somebody can slap you down with impunity, and all you can do is just take it.  Usually the slap-down is metaphorical, sometimes not.  In some cases, the metaphorical slap-downs hurt a lot more than Parker’s hands.  Ask Megyn Kelly.

Before the section with George ends, Dan Wycza avoids a mistake Parker made in the first book in this series–they’re about to gag George, when he says he’s got asthma.  The health conscious Dan knows about asthma, doesn’t want any dead bodies on this cruise, so he tells George to take out his inhaler, take a few puffs, and then be calm–nothing’s going to happen to him.  He didn’t push that button. He should just think about what he’s going to say to the TV cameras when the media shows up to interview him.  He’s so busy thinking about this, he misses a vital little detail about something he heard after the blindfold went on–something the police would have liked to know about.

And elsewhere, before the chapter ends, Cathman is thinking about a button he intends to push, and trying to persuade himself that he can deal with Parker’s reaction to that perfectly well.

They exit through a door in the hull of the ship, right from the money room–out onto the river, where Hanzen is waiting to pick them up in his boat.  Hanzen is looking scared.  Too scared.  We’re in his head now, and it’s not a happy place to be.  Parker is looking at him, frowning–he can tell something’s wrong.  Hanzen begins mentally writing his will.

Chapter 9 is all Noelle, and about time.  It’s her time to shine here–and for us to learn a few things about her before she makes her final exit.   She’s also liking this job–it’s hard to find a good string like this to work with.  None of them have hit on her, which she thinks might be in part because they heard about the guy she kneecapped in St. Louis.  She’d like to find a boyfriend who shares her interest in armed robbery, but she can handle the life solo, if need be.

We find out she was raised out west, Wyoming, and her dad was a pharmacist.  Her uncle wasn’t.

It was her father’s older brother, Ray Braselle, a heister from way back, who’d brought her into the game, over her pharmacist father’s objections.  Ray Braselle had been around for so long that once, in describing the first bank job he was ever on, he’d said, “And I stood on the running board,” and then he’d had to explain what a running board was.

Uncle Ray was all right, though old as the goddam hills.  But the people he ran with were more like Parker; tough, but not just smash-and-grab, always with a plan, a contingency, ways in and ways out.  For guys like that, a good-looking girl could frequently be part of the plan, and if she was a pro herself, steady and reliable, not a hooker and not a junkie, who knew how to handle a gun, an alarm system, or a cop, so much the better.

She thinks about how Uncle Ray ended–not with a cop’s bullet in him.  A horse he was on fell on top of him.  After that, she met Tommy Carpenter, and that’s when she got into the hippie scene a short time, but it was never who she was. Just another mask.  Like the mask she’s wearing now, the sickly rich girl, except she is feeling pretty sick, because she hasn’t been able to stay hydrated, being in the chair all the time, and not being able to relieve herself.

But that works fine for the job, her looking so convincingly queasy, because now they have to convince the purser to let them off the ship as soon as they get back to port.  He’s sympathetic, and then the alarms start going off–holy shit, somebody robbed the money room!  Well yeah, and the money is resting underneath Noelle’s lovely ass.  But no matter, he can still get her off the boat, personally.  And perking up suddenly, her sense of humor engaged, she tempts fate, just a little.

Noelle said, “Jerry?”

He leaned close to give her a solicitious look, and to say, “Don’t worry, Jane Ann, we’ll still get you off, just as soon as we dock.”

“Thank you, Jerry,” she said, “but that’s not what I wanted to say.  Jerry, do you realize what this is?  It’s piracy!”

Jerry reared back, thinking about that.  “By golly, you’re right.”

Noelle said, “Look for a man with an eye patch.”  And despite how miserable she felt, she smiled.

And chapter 10 ends Part 3, with Ray Becker waking up with a start in his comfortable Adirondack chair at the cabin, thinking nervously about what would have happened if the robbers and killers he means to rob and kill had found him that way.  And then he hears voices, but they aren’t the robbers.  They’re another bunch of people who mean to rob the robbers.  Three bikers–two old fat ones, and a young skinny one.  So now he’s got to deal with them, before he deals with Parker & Co.  And now three different sets of criminal plans (four if you count Cathman) fall apart with the pull of a trigger.

And now I’ve got to decide if I want to type a 9,000 word Part 2.  No, not really. This is something I’ve noticed about Backflash.  It’s no Butcher’s Moon when it comes to length, and it’s not that much longer than Comeback (same number of pages in the first editions, but the type is smaller).  Somehow, this one just has a lot more detail, more items of interest to discuss than the typical Stark novel. And I have typically gotten bogged down in those details,  which means I’m going to have to make this one a three-parter.

Anyway, I’ve got a Christmas Party to attend.  We’ll wrap this one up before New Year’s, at which point I have a brunch to attend.  Who says bloggers have no social life?  Have yourself a merry little whatever.

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24 Comments

Filed under Donald Westlake novels, Parker Novels, Richard Stark

24 responses to “Review: Backflash, Part 2

  1. He can’t go to anyone in authority without blowing his cover

    Because if he told security “Hey, I’ve met Kotkind, he’s my assemblyman, and that’s not him”, they would demand to see his ID, and, if the address didn’t match, throw him overboard.

    • Here’s the thing–even though he’s enjoying playing the undercover newsman, he’s clearly not a duplicitous person. He’s too darned honest. He would either tell them the truth or do a terrible job lying. They’d suspect something, and they would demand to see his ID, because they believe in the false Kotkind, much more than they’d believe in some guy who said “This isn’t the real Kotkind.” As is pointed out in the book, practiced liars are often better at looking honest than most genuinely honest people. Do I really need to point that out at the end of 2016?

      Greg doesn’t know why somebody’s pretending to be a minor state politician from Brooklyn. Maybe there’s some good reason for it. All he knows for sure is that his editor told him no controversy. The casino people are buying a lot of ad space in the Poughkeepsie Journal. If he gets into any kind of trouble, he could get fired. For all we know, he did get fired, but probably his having such a juicy first-hand story to tell about a daring shipboard casino robbery got him promoted. Mr. Westlake takes care of his Nephews, even though Mr. Stark prefers to knock those saps out with saps and toss them headfirst into lifeboats.

      Parker made sure they invested a lot of effort in creating the illusion of the visiting politician who must be appeased at all costs, because there’s still an outside chance the company behind the boat could lose this lucrative new territory. He’s noticed people believe more in images than in reality. The appearance of power is more important than real power. Hell, even the real Kotkind is a nobody, that’s made very clear. He can’t stop legalized gambling, and he doesn’t really think he can. But these company men and women all think their heads will roll if they offend him in some way.

      Obviously a more experienced reporter would have behaved differently, but a more experienced reporter wouldn’t have been there at all, because there’d be no point, unless he felt like gambling.

      In that Hans Christian Anderson story, only a little boy had the nerve to say that the Emperor was naked. You don’t bring little kids aboard a floating casino. Anyway, they’d just say this Emperor was a short fat bald guy. Which is true of both Kotkinds.

  2. Backflash has my favorite heist in the series, an elaborate yet plausible plan that relies on short cons, long cons, play-acting (by Parker again!), misdirection, and brute force. (And yes, the slap and threat are somewhat cringe-inducing. Without them, and with a jauntier cast of characters, the whole heist could serve as a template for an Ocean’s 11-style flick.)

    I love the spitballing that occurs among the heisters early on, with several ideas being proposed and rejected. Like a lot of Westlake’s work, it feels like a metaphor for the writing process — feeling your way through the plot until you arrive at the thing that works.

    • Westlake enjoyed seeing himself and his fellow writers in that light–the old idea that creative people might just as easily have been criminals, and vice versa.

      It’s a great heist–I’m going to have to talk next time about how good it is as a book. On the whole I think it’s not as good as Comeback, but there’s so much to enjoy about it, I feel churlish even mentioning that. Again, I think it’s a transitional book between the old and new Parker series that somehow got written after the new series began. Like he was going backwards and forwards at the same time. It must have been disorienting, writing Parker again after so long a break. It might have been helpful for him to bring back a lot of other characters from the First Sixteen, to see how they played in this new era he was writing in. Very well, but maybe a bit dated as well. The thing about Parker is, he doesn’t date. Dan and Mike and the others kinda do, but not unpleasantly so.

      It’s got a lot of moving parts for a Stark novel. Maybe too many. But it’s still fun watching them move.

  3. Mysterious Press did put out a matchbook cover for Comeback (at least in paperback), but it was probably the least inspired of the matchbooks, and it was short-lived, since the more prominent Mysterious Press paperback version of Comeback was the Mel Gibson “Payback” cover.

    • Um–but Payback was based on The Hunter…….?

      That is a very uninspired cover, yeah. But at least it matches the others. I have the one for The Man With the Getaway Face (as well as the original paperback), and that does not work at all. But they had a theme, and they decided to go with it.

  4. Yes, of course you’re right. I’m way too tired tonight to contribute a coherent thought. Happy holidays to you!

    • It’s been about an hour since I had a drink (back from my friend’s Christmas party), or I wouldn’t even have noticed the discrepancy. Let’s see, there was Comeback, Payback, Fallback, Cutback, Outback, Fullback, Nickleback (that one really sucked), Switchback,…….. 😉

    • I think my confusion arose out of the fact that I bought Comeback and Payback in the same bookstore on the same day, and those were the first two Parkers I ever read. They’ve been paired in my head for almost twenty years. Still, I don’t know what I was thinking.

      For a long time, I wanted there to be a complete set of Parkers with matching covers. I thought the matchbooks would be it, but they gave up the reissues after The Jugger and the gave up the matchbooks after Breakout (and I hated the original cover for Nobody Runs Forever). Then, when U of C finally undertook the task, I was decidedly underwhelmed (and even they didn’t make it all the way through the series). Ultimately, it’s probably an appropriate reflection the Parker series itself that there are these short, various runs of different kinds of covers, mix-and-match and catch-as-catch-can.

      • That said, if Hard Case Crime decided to take on the entire series, I would buy the entire series again.

        • I assume U. of Chicago would have to let their option slip first.

          The most important thing is that the books stay in print. We can always supply our own illustrations, via the power of imagination.

          Anyway, McGinnis is 90 now. My dream would be a series that includes his previous six Parker covers, and just adds 18 more.

          I see a lot of new books in the course of my working day.

          I never see a cover that excites me the way some of those old paperbacks do. Hard Case invokes that era with their covers, often powerfully. But it’s still not quite the same.

          • The final four Parkers appear to be out of print right now.

            • Not sure why that would be, though the rights could have gotten complicated.

            • They seem to be available as audiobooks, and Nobody Runs Forever is available as a hardcover in a large print edition. Weird.

              U of C has published all of the Grofields and all but the last four Parkers. Again, weird.

              • It’s not weird–it’s Westlake. Very few authors as successful as him ever changed publishers so often–taking famous series characters with them, and the movies just complicate things further.

                Highsmith arguably bettered him in this regard–The five Ripley novels had five different American publishers. But W.W. Norton seems to be publishing all of them now.

                The thing about the ‘Parkeriad’ is, it’s a lot more books. Remarkable that so many are still in print. Frankly, I’m more bothered by Adios Scheherazade and Help I Am Being Held Prisoner being out of print.

                But it should certainly be possible for anyone, anywhere, to download and read all twenty-four Parker novels. Then again, if some of them are only available via bootleg at a given time–that’s not entirely inappropriate. 😉

      • I liked the original cover for Nobody Runs Forever, but it certainly did stick out from the others from that period. There was never a consistent house style for the way the books were presented. Nobody could agree on what the main protagonist looked like, or whether he’d even be depicted on the cover at all. Artists were pretty much left to their own devices, I think. Some did better than others.

        I mean, Prather did how many Shell Scott books, and it was pretty much 100% consistent all the way through (and that got kind of stale, didn’t it?).

        Parker could never get with the program. It didn’t help that there were so many different publishers and formats, but that wasn’t the whole problem. The problem was, this just wasn’t like any other series character in the history of genre fiction. He basically resists being a series character. He was never supposed to be one, and he’s fighting it from Day One. He’s something else.

  5. Mike: Maybe the first Parker/Dortmunder/Arrested Development cross-over ever.

    Christopher: Part of the joy for me of discovering Parker in the late ’90s/early ’00s was the challenge that came from tracking down those rare out-of-prints. Back in those days, a battered, remaindered former library copy of Butcher’s Moon would set you back around $80 (as it did me).

    • I still treasure my older copies, and preferentially read them–in fact, much as I think they should all be evailable, I’ve never read anything by Stark in ebook form.

      In my perfect world, they’d just produce perfect facsimile editions of the Pocket and Gold Medal paperbacks (clearly identified as such, so as not to screw with the collector’s market). I got lucky with my library copy of Butcher’s Moon (Ray, that old ebay hound, has pointed me to many a bargain). But I’d have paid eighty, if need be.

      Not sure who this ‘Christopher’ you speak of is, though. But I’m sure if he were here, he’d wish you and your family a lovely holiday. 😐

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