Review: Backflash, Part 3


They were keeping close to the east bank, and it stayed pretty much the same until they passed another river town, smaller than Hudson, and looking poorer, its clapboard houses climbing above one another back up the hill from the water.  Hanzen steered farther away from shore at that point, out closer to the middle of the river, which was very wide here, the other bank visible but not clear, just a blur of green and the colors of structures.

North of that town, Hanzen steered closer to the bank again and said, “You don’t mind, I got some stuff of my own to look at along here.”

“Go ahead.”

“First we see if my alarm’s okay,” Hanzen said, and steered abruptly leftward, toward the middle of the river, so that Parker had to press his forearm down on the cabin top to keep his balance. Hanzen drove out a ways, then swung around in a wide half-circle, looking toward the shore, and smiled in satisfaction.  “There it is,” he said.  “You see the big branch bent down?”

Parker shook his head.  “Just so you do,” he said.

Hanzen grinned back at him.  “That’s right, I guess.  We know what we have to know, and we see what we have to see.”

For perhaps no other reason than that I love the Hudson River so damn much (which only increases my enjoyment of this book), I have filched the above scenic vista from the New York Times.  It’s the Hudson-Athens Lighthouse, also called The Hudson City Light, which is out on the river between the towns of Hudson and Athens, but closer to the Hudson side of the Hudson.  It’s not mentioned in Backflash at all, nor is the long narrow island nearby (more of a glorified sandbar) with the less than picturesque name of ‘Middle Ground Flats’, which has been a frequent hazard to navigation in those parts (hence the lighthouse), and has a few marginally legal shanty houses on it.

Those would both seem like relevant things to mention in this story, though I suppose it wasn’t strictly necessary (the Hudson has more mysteries than any one novel can be expected to address, or any thousand novels, for that matter).  I don’t expect Westlake was out there much around Hudson, mentally mapping the area from a boat.  I don’t know he went out there at all when he was writing this one.  I think he was mainly working on old memories here.  He knew what he had to know.  He saw what he had to see.

Although no one has yet seen any riverboat casinos steaming down the Hudson River (with or without paddlewheels or James Garner in a Stetson), many waterfront locales have had the dubious pleasure of hosting such establishments. As you would expect, it’s mainly been communities with a lot of poverty and unemployment, and then somebody shows up making big promises, saying this is going to be so classy and everybody’s going to get rich, you’ll never lose again, believe me.  You know where I’m going with this.


This one was on a Great Lake. Huge.  

I had to search around a bit to find book covers I hadn’t already used (I hadn’t anticipated a Part 3 for this review). Fortunately there was an alternate German edition.  (There are no crocodiles in the Hudson River, or even alligators, but that’s nit-picking.)  Sein Letzer Trumpf means “His Last Trump” in German, and as is so often the case with genre book titles, had been used before, but in a different genre.


Buster Brack, I have only now learned, was a pseudonym of Kurt Brand, a German pulp writer (mainly science fiction and westerns), who seems to have written a whole lot more novels than Westlake, under many names, including some of those endless (and still ongoing) Perry Rhodan science fiction adventures that I’d guess Westlake would have dismissed as stories about ‘psupermen’–but you know, many of us obviously need to believe in supermen, with or without the silent ‘p.’

And I guess now’s as good a time as any to ask–is Parker a superman?  Was Westlake violating his own aversion to this type of character by creating him, and keeping him alive across the course of twenty-four novels and forty-six years?  Is he just another square-jawed hard-bitten two-fisted adventurer, only with a different set of hardware than if he was in a horse opera or a space opera?

Westlake said Stark was the romantic in him speaking, and that means Parker is an ideal–an archetype.  Drawn from both real and fictional gangsters of the early 20th century.   And probably from other genres, such as the western (I’ve already talked about some of this in that Genealogy of a Hunter piece).  Maybe from much older sources as well–Westlake believed Parker had always been lurking out there in storyland, and all he’d done was bring him into the foreground for once.

But Westlake was never content to just let him be a type.  He had to keep putting him to the question, challenging him, giving him identity puzzles to solve–his own or someone else’s.  This is what keeps him from being like those SciFi psupermen Westlake despised, or some gat-toting guff-spouting gangster or gumshoe–that and the fact that he’s not trying to impose his worldview on anyone else.  He’s content to just be what he is, and let others figure out who they are and what they want for themselves, if they can–as long as they don’t overly complicate his existence.  Then they may have to go.

And with less than seventy pages to go in this book, this should be a really short Part 3.  Why don’t I believe that, even as I type it?   Because just like their protagonist, not to mention their creator, these books are never as simple as they seem.

The heist is done.  Parker, Dan Wycza, and Lou Sternberg have been picked up on the river by Hanzen, the river rat and two-time loser, who has a secret they need to know.  Mike Carlow and Noelle Braselle subsequently debarked The Spirit of the Hudson (Nee Biloxi) by more conventional means, with the cash most unconventionally hidden in a compartment under Noelle’s wheelchair that is normally reserved for a less pleasant (though arguably more useful) substance.

As Hanzen’s boat approaches the stretch of shoreline where their rented cabin is, they hear shots.  Parker could smell Hanzen’s fear already, suspected a cross, and now he’s sure of it.  Hanzen, resigned to his unfortunate lot in life (and powerfully reminiscent of Dortmunder in  this worldweary resignation), needs little persuasion to tell what he knows–the biker gang who distribute the pot he grows in hidden locations along the river’s edge figured out Parker wasn’t a restaurateur looking for a riverfront location (Parker himself made that obvious when he stared down one of them who was blocking his path).

They beat on Hanzen until he caved (knowing that even if he didn’t, he’d still have them to answer to after the heist was done). They’re waiting there at the cabin to kill Parker & Co. and take the money.  As to the gunfire, he’s got no idea what that’s all about (we do, since we know about Ray Becker, the dirty cop who was waiting there at the cabin himself, for the same reasons, only to see the bikers arrive, and decide to deal with them himself).

Sternberg wants Hanzen shot and dumped in the river without delay.  Parker reminds him they need him to pilot them back to an alternate location, namely Hanzen’s own landing, where they can take possession of his car and then deal with whoever is left over by their cabin.  Hanzen says fine, he’ll take them there, hand them the keys, then they can kill him, and his troubles will be over.

Parker isn’t sure yet whether Hanzen needs to die.  Yes, he betrayed them, but not of his own volition–he wasn’t getting greedy.  He only did it to survive.  He was trapped between his arrangements with two different groups.  Parker can understand that.  He’s not sympathetic, exactly.  But he can see why Hanzen did what he did, and Hanzen owned up to it, and that button in Parker’s head has only been half-pushed–he doesn’t want Hanzen dead.  Not unless he needs to be.

Sternberg, thinking of his comfortable life in London, wants all loose ends tied up neatly.  Hanzen got them back to his landing, they have his car keys, he needs to stop breathing now.  Parker is on the fence.  Dan breaks the tie.  Right after he breaks Hanzen’s jaw with a vicious right hand.

While still on the boat, needled by Wycza, Hanzen had a little something to say about ‘enhanced interrogation.’

“Leaned on him,” Wycza said, scoffing.  “They leaned on him.  Made faces and said boo.”

“That’s right,” Hanzen said, “they did that, too.  They also kicked me in the nuts a couple times, kicked me in the shins so I got some red scars you could look at, twisted my arms around till I thought they broke ’em, closed a couple hands down on my windpipe until I passed out.”  He turned away from the wheel, though still holding on to it, and looked Wyza up and down.  “You’re a big guy,” he said, “so you figure it don’t happen to you.  The day it does, big man, when you got seven or eight comin at you, not to kill you but just to make you hurt, you remember Greg Hanzen.”

“I’ll do that,” Wycza promised.

He clearly did, because after dropping Hanzen, Dan walks away, saying he wants no part of killing him.  In the world he and the others have chosen to live in, mercy is almost always a mistake, but sometimes it’s a mistake worth making, if you want to go on being yourself.  Parker and Lou shrug, figuring what the hell, he’s not a threat, and you don’t kill when you don’t have to. They leave him there, unconscious, his jawbone in pieces, an angry biker gang soon to descend upon him, and drive away in his little Hyundai, which shall never be returned.  The quality of their mercy is somewhat strained, it must be said.

They were lucky they heard the shots before they dumped their guns in the river. Parker and Wycza both have their heavy artillery–a Colt Python and a S&W Magnum.  Lou has an automatic they took from a guard on the boat.  They scope out the cabin and the surrounding area, and find three dead bikers.  They figure he’s hiding in one of the unoccupied cabins.  Whoever he is.  They find evidence he’s been wounded, but hard to say how badly.  They go back to the Hyundai, where Lou is keeping watch.

By this time, Mike and Noelle have showed up, Noelle still looking pretty wan–playing a sickly girl has made her temporarily sick herself (Dan, still nursing the Starkian heister’s equivalent of a crush, is worried about her).  They discuss the situation, and the upshot is that only Parker has to worry about this guy, whoever he is.  He could never possibly find any of the others. They have their cash, and they want to go spend it.  Parker’s the one who has to make sure this guy doesn’t show up on his doorstep sometime, so Parker’s on his own.

He is in perfect philosophical agreement with this.  No argument at all.  As you’ll recall, he argued with Handy McKay, quite a ways back during the events of The Outfit, when Handy wanted to help him out in his private war with Arthur Bronson.  But at least there Handy stood to get some profit from that venture. What bothered Parker then was that Handy was pitching in because he thought of himself as Parker’s friend.  Parker doesn’t think of himself as having friends. He respects these people he’s working with, trusts them as much as he’ll ever trust anybody, but the job is over, and any professional loyalty they may owe each other has already been satisfied.

They tally up the proceeds of the night’s work, and it comes to $319,720.  You know, that seems a bit light to me for a casino heist–if this is the late 90’s.  Just saying.  Inflation.  Parker takes out three grand for having financed the job.  He rules that the four departing string members get 63k each, and he’ll keep what’s left over for tidying up the mess they leave behind.  They consider that more than fair.

He bids them an unsentimental farewell, as they drive away together in Mike’s limo, and far as we know, he never sees any of them ever again, though obviously he’d want to work with them again, and they with him.  Maybe Dan and Noelle decide along the way to have fun spending their money together, maybe not. Maybe Mike finally builds that race car where all the gas is stored in metal tubing (maybe that’s why we never hear anything more about him).  Maybe Lou is knighted by Queen Elizabeth, becomes the Marquess of Montpelier Gardens, enters the House of Lords, and retires to a landed estate with Fergie (either one). Make up your own stories, why don’t you?

Waiting for his night vision to come back, so he can go back and kill this guy, Parker suddenly has to dodge a pick-up truck coming from the direction of the cabins–moving too fast for him to shoot the driver.  Knowing it’s safe now, he checks the cabins more thoroughly, and realizes the guy who shot the bikers had passed out from his wound afterwards.  He hadn’t moved on Parker and Wycza because he never even saw them.  Then he woke up, realized his original plan was ruined, and got out of there.  Parker sets fire to the cabins, to remove any trace of forensic evidence that could lead to him or the others.

That was supposed to be the end of the job.  But he has to deal with the guy who shot the bikers.  He has to deal with Cathman.  And now he wearily realizes he’s got to deal with Hanzen.  Mike’s offhanded act of humanity was a mistake. Because they had to take Hanzen’s Hyundai to get to the cabins.  And once they were all there, the only thing for the others to do was take their splits and split, in Mike’s car, leaving Parker behind to cover their tracks.  No time to stop and think it through.

But Parker, all by himself, can’t get rid of Hanzen’s car–the fire will bring the cops around in a hurry, and they’ll find it there.  It will lead the cops to Hanzen, and Hanzen has met him, Wycza, and Sternberg.  He knows things about the job the law might use to come after Parker and his string.  He knows Pete Rudd, the guy who referred Parker to him (who I just now remembered was in Parker’s string in The Seventh–he was the former cabinet maker who got beaten up by The Amateur, then caught by the law, and now he’s out again–and still on the bend, apparently.  Because there’s still not much work out there for a cabinet maker).

Parker does the math–Hanzen’s a known former felon, who associates with local gang members, who will need medical treatment for a broken jaw, the night of a major robbery on a river he basically lives on.  The odds of him avoiding attention from the law are not good, and he’s already proven he’ll break like an egg when the pressure is on.  The button in Parker’s head is now fully pushed. Hanzen has become too much of a liability to go on breathing.

Parker drives to Hanzen’s landing in the Lexus he’s been using, telling himself that if Hanzen isn’t there, he’ll just let matters drop, and hope the poor schmuck knows better than to talk to the law (‘schmuck’ is me talking, somehow Yiddish and Parker don’t go together).  But Hanzen doesn’t even know better than to get the hell out of sight.  He’s still there, on his boat, groggy from Dan’s blow, his head wrapped in a towel.  Parker tells him his problems are over after all.  Fade to black.

Of all the killings Parker does in twenty-four novels, this one bothers me more than any that don’t involve dogs.  Hanzen’s something of a shelter mutt himself, you might say.  In his quiet downbeaten way, he’s a likable guy, with an interesting outlook–and smalltime crook that he is, he’s hardly a menace to society. As he told Parker earlier, he’d been to prison twice, and he wanted to stay free, no matter what.  Whether he spilled what he knew to the cops or not, he was probably going back inside for the rest of his life.  If he didn’t, those dead bikers have friends who will want to take their mad out on somebody, and he’d be the only punching bag in town.

You could call it mercy, but that’s not what it is. You could call it survival of the fittest, but that’s not quite right either.  It’s simply this–Hanzen was trapped between two identities.  He’d been on the bend too long to make it in the straight world.  Hence the pot growing and doing odd jobs for guys like Parker.  But he didn’t have all the instincts necessary to survive in that world, or the strength to accept the consequences of living in it.  He couldn’t commit to either life, so he lost both.  And nobody will mourn him.  Except us.  And maybe Stark.

And Parker still isn’t done.  Miles to go before he sleeps, and he needs that sleep, very badly.  The main problem is Claire, or rather, her house, that she’s grown attached to, as he’s grown attached to her.  Howell gave Cathman the number of the house.  Cathman has used that number to get the address.  Meaning that now Parker has to silence Cathman, or else he and Claire have to pull up stakes and disappear.  Parker doesn’t know how much the shooter at the cabins knows.

He’s got to assume the worst.  He’s got to keep driving.  All the way to Albany. All the way to Cathman’s house.  Which has a pick-up truck parked outside it–very similar to the one that nearly ran Parker down near the cabins.  And stored in the truck is a shotgun, marked property of Monroeville P.D.  That town name sounds familiar.  But he doesn’t have the time–or  by this point, the mental acuity–to ponder it.

Parker enters silently, finds Cathman asleep upstairs, with the lights on.  In his office, there are sheets of paper on his desk.  He’s been writing something out in longhand, something important to him, and he’s been obsessively editing it, trying to make it perfect (an exercise in futility, as any writer could tell you).

Normally Parker wouldn’t care what garbled nonsense goes through the mind of a failed apparatchik; what would make him set pen to paper when his career is already over, but now Parker’s got to know.

What’s with Cathman now?  Why was he afraid to sleep in the dark?  What idea is he trying so hard to express?

Standing over the desk, Python in right hand, Parker moved the sheets around with his left index finger.  The writing was very neat and legible, a bureaucrat’s penmanship, but there were a lot of crossings-out and inserted additions.  Numbers in circles were at the top left of each page.  Parker picked up the page marked “1” and read:

“Gambling is not only a vice itself, but is an attraction to other vice.  Theft, prostitution, usury, drug dealing and more, all follow in gambling’s train.”

Oh; it was his dead horse again, still being beaten.  Parker was about to put the page back down on the desk, but something tugged at his attention, and he skimmed the page down to the bottom, then went on to page 2, and began to see that this was more than just the dead horse, more than just Cathman’s usual whine. This time, he was building towards something, some point, some deal…

It’s damned near impossible to horrify Parker, but as he reads on, he experiences something rather akin to horror.  Cathman isn’t writing an Op Ed here–he’s writing a confession to conspiracy to commit armed robbery!  His plan all along was to get some professional criminals to rob the casino boat, in order to prove that casino boats will attract professional criminals.  Quod Erat Demonstrandum.

And I think Heisenberg’s Uncertainty Principle might also be fairly applied here, but maybe Cathman isn’t familiar with that.  He certainly should have been familiar with Parker’s First Law.  For every action that might get Parker dead or jailed, there is an equal and opposite reaction.  But Parker, exhausted and wired at the same time, is still reeling at this revelation of the chaos that can erupt from even the most seemingly well-ordered of human minds.

Insane.  The son of a bitch is insane.  The dead horse is riding him.  He’s so determined to prove that gambling leads to crime that he’s got to rig the crime.  He went out to find people to commit the crime for him; first Howell, then Parker.  Point them at the ship, give them every bit of help they want, so after they do their job he can say, “See? I was right.  Gambling led to the robbery, so shut down the gambling ship.  And listen to me from now on, don’t shunt me off into retirement, as though I was old and useless and not valuable any more.”

And it would take no time at all for the law to realize Cathman was in on it.  His idea is that he’ll tell the cops he knows who did the robbery, but he won’t tell them anything unless they give him and his quadruped corpse a press conference.  They won’t need to comply, because once he’s admitted he knows something about a felony, but isn’t telling, he’s already guilty of a crime.  And since the only member of the string he knows about is Parker….

(Sure, we can laugh, but people much higher up the political food chain than Cathman ever was have done far stupider things.)

He wakes Cathman up.  Cathman, trying to control his fear and not succeeding, pretends he only wrote his manifesto in case Parker and the others were caught and pointed the finger at him.  Honestly, if Parker was sure this was all he’d done, he would have strangled Cathman in his sleep, so he wouldn’t have to hear all this rote denial.  But he’s got to know if there’s anything else.  He’s very tired, and he’s got to do this all by himself (Handy McKay would have come in handy right about now, wouldn’t you say, Parker?).  He’s very focused on tying up this loose end, and then the other loose end knocks him out from behind.

(I hate this part of crime fiction.  The hero detective getting knocked out from behind just as he’s getting to the truth.  Particularly since this hero detective isn’t really a detective or a hero, and he knew there was a strange truck parked out there that didn’t belong to Cathman, and he should have located the driver before he started with Cathman .  Westlake does his best to sell it, making Parker atypically vulnerable and unwary from lack of rest, because he needs Parker to be at Becker’s mercy for a short time, so Parker can learn the rest of the story from him.  I understand that.  That doesn’t mean I have to like it.  It’s a cliché of the genre this series has done quite well without up to now.  But hey, it worked great for Mickey Spillane.  And even real wolves get taken by surprise sometimes, as many a pelt nailed to a trophy wall attests. I’d just rather Ray had just told Parker to put his hands up from the doorway, but Parker has a very impressive-looking pistol in one hand, and I guess that would be problematic as well. Fanboy whining disabled now, back to synopsis.)

Parker wakes up with his hands cuffed behind him.  Well, this is a setback.  Ray is trying to get Cathman to tell him where the money is.  Might as well ask him where Jimmy Hoffa is (unless maybe he set that up too?).

Now that Ray’s realized Cathman is no good to him, Parker has an opening–he offers a deal.  The same kind of deal he offered George Liss in the previous book–a split of the take.  As with Liss, it’s a deal neither man intends to honor, but each will pretend to believe in, to get what he wants.  Ray wants all the money.  Parker wants to kill him.  Parker pretends he’s there to shut Cathman up, and he’s still got to go back and get his share from the others.

As it happens, his share is right there in his car, hidden away, but he won’t mention that, and it wouldn’t be enough for Ray’s purposes anyway.  Ray, feeling the law closing in on him too, needs so badly to believe he can get the whole pile, and disappear to some distant tropic paradise without extradition treaties, he won’t let himself believe that’s no longer an option.

While they’re working all this out, Cathman, perhaps finally coming to terms with the sheer ludricousness of his plan, not to mention his life, takes a lot of pills, and saves Parker the trouble of killing him.  Just one more loose end left.

Parker is already sizing Ray up, and coming to some well-founded conclusions about him.  Some kind of cop (who else goes around with handcuffs and a police department shotgun?).  He’s in some kind of trouble.  He heard about the heist from somebody.  Parker still needs to know who before he kills the guy (Parker is thinking this while the guy has his hands cuffed behind his back and has a gun on him, and it doesn’t seem even the least bit presumptious, does it?).

So Parker says he’ll take Ray to where the money is, and they’ll give him a cut to make him go away, and Ray says he’ll accept the cut, and before they go, Ray agrees to let Parker search Cathman’s house for anything that might lead the law to him.  He destroys it all, except for the manifesto, which Ray pockets (probably figuring he could use it for leverage if all else fails).

With Ray’s kind (and deeply unwise) indulgence, Parker takes a pen–not the fancy retractable kind, so probably not the brand you’d associate with him.  He also pockets a paperclip.  He notices Ray is not being careful not to leave fingerprints around the house–which means he’s definitely leaving his old life behind–and also means he’s careless.  All the better.   Parker talks Ray into taking his Lexus, instead of the pick-up.  If he leaves that money here, it’s gone. Ray now has to cuff him behind his back again.  Gives him the old Face To the Wall routine.  Absolutely a cop, Parker thinks.

The story Parker is telling is that he’s supposed to meet up with his colleagues who have all the money, down along the same stretch of river the cabins were on. The reason being that Parker scouted that area with Carlow beforehand, and he needs to know the terrain in order to make his next move.  There’s only a quarter tank of gas left in the Lexus.  Wait until the tank is nearly empty, then guide Ray past a lonely gas station on a lightly trafficked road.  First they have to cover some more heavily trafficked roads, and Stark has to give us a suspiciously Westlake-sounding history lesson.

At first it was all major highways, across the Hudson River out of Albany and then due east toward Massachusetts.  This was called the Thruway Extension and at the state line it would met up [darn, typo in my paperback edition, well those happen sometimes] with the Massachusetts Turnpike, one hundred fifty miles due east to Boston.  A little before that, there was the Taconic Parkway, the oldest major highway in the state, built in the twenties so the state government people in Albany would have easy access to New York City, one hundred fifty miles to the south and screw the rest of the state, which didn’t get a big road until the thruway came in, thirty years later.

Okay, but it’s a really pretty highway to drive on all the same, Mr. Sourpuss Stark. Particularly in autumn.  Not that Parker gives a shit either way, and the only color Ray is seeing now is green.  Red isn’t here yet.

They reach the station.  Parker mentions the gas gauge.  Ray figures he needs to take a leak anyway–and he enjoys leaving Parker, who needs one just as much, in the car, while he goes.  That’s how a cop thinks, you see–good or bad.  Keep reminding the perp who’s in charge.  Never mind that he’s a perp too.  That’s not the point.

The point, unfortunately for him, is that Parker still has that paper clip.  Which makes a dandy lock pick, if you happen to be cuffed behind your back.  He freed his hands before they even got to the gas station and is only pretending to still be cuffed.  I bet Houdini would have made a great bank robber back in the twenties. Parker probably wouldn’t have been able to work the showmanship angle well enough to be a professional magician, though Claire would have made a ravishing assistant.  I digress.  Almost 5,000 words, we can start wrapping this up now.

He’s got no gun, but he’s got the pen, and the element of surprise.  As Ray comes out of the men’s room, Parker clubs him with a hard left, using the cuffs as brass knuckles.  He tries to get him in the eye with the pen, but just stabs him in the cheek.  Ray was so used to thinking of himself as being in charge, he can’t handle the role reversal, doesn’t react fast enough.  Parker gets his .38 revolver before he knows what’s happening.  Then he shoots Ray right above the belt buckle (perhaps remembering how a belt buckle saved his life back in the first book, you never know with him).

Ray’s finished, but he can’t bring himself to believe it.  Parker tells him to sit on the toilet while he looks at Ray’s wallet.  Yeah, he’s a cop.  He had all that figured just right, master detective that he is (I don’t mind that part of the genre so much) but he still wants to know how Ray got involved in all this.  He’s had time to think about it.  He’s got a theory he wants to test out.  He mentions a name. Marshall Howell.  The man Ray Becker killed by squeezing him too hard, when he was pinned inside a crumpled car.  Trying to get the location of the money from an earlier heist, getting Cathman’s name instead.  The dead cop’s eyes fill with fear when Parker says that name.  Bingo.

You ever notice how often Parker avenges someone’s murder in these books without remotely intending to do that?  He doesn’t really have a sense of justice. But Richard Stark does.  And Parker is his instrument.

“You didn’t have a lot of time,” Parker told him.  “I guess you were already in a lot of trouble, you look like that kind.  He wouldn’t give you me, but he gave you Cathman, and here you come, on the run, gonna kill the whole world if you have to, get your hands on fuck-you money.”

“He was dying anyway,” Becker said.

“He was not,” Parker told him.  “But he should have been.  I knew it was a mistake to let him live.”

He took the Python out of his pocket, put it an inch from Ray Becker’s left eye.  Becker was saying all kinds of things, panting and spitting out words.  “We live and learn, Ray,” Parker said, and shot him.

Chapter 14 of Part 4 is only two pages, nothing more than a coda to this symphony.  Parker goes to where the kid clerking the convenience store at the gas station is, just to make sure he didn’t hear anything.  Kid’s got headphones on, listening to a little plastic radio.  Not a Walkman.  Geez, I’m not sure it’s even the 1980’s yet.  But anyway, the kid heard nothing, so he can keep his life, such as it is.  He’s going to have a real surprise when he gets around to cleaning up the men’s room, if he ever does.

Parker drives away in the Lexus, the money still hidden inside it, along with the Python.  He got Cathman’s manifesto from Ray’s pocket, and he slowly tears it to pieces, scattering it along the roadside.  He already passed his final verdict on the feckless finger for this job, back at his house.  Well, you made a lot of trouble, Cathman, Parker thought, but tomorrow people will still pay money to see the next card.  

He drives up a hill, and he can see the river to his right, beautiful as ever, not that he cares.  A sailboat comes into view.  Maybe it’s the Clearwater. He doesn’t care about that either.  He knows what he has to know.  He sees what he has to see.  He drives down the hill and he’s gone from our sight once more.  With all the money he’s heisted the last few weeks, he shouldn’t need to work again for some time.

I think this is both a better and worse novel than Comeback.  More content, less poetry.  Maybe a few too many moving parts to be ranked with the best Starks, but you could say the same of Butcher’s Moon.  Maybe the old familiar faces here are a bit too old and familiar by this point (maybe that’s the real reason we never saw them again), but that’s part of the point of the exercise–to find out which parts of the old series still work in a new era (regardless of when precisely this book is set, and as I said in the beginning, there’s no straight answer to that question anyway).

Maybe a bit too much politics, but that being said, it’s damned interesting to see Stark writing about politics, get his take on it, not quite the same as Westlake’s, nor entirely different either.  It was never Stark’s point that criminals are the only really honest people out there.  But at least his criminals know they’re dishonest.  The best of them, anyway.  The ones Parker wouldn’t need to kill once the job is over.

And if it’s possible to be honest within the parameters of a criminal life, surely it should be much easier to be honest as an ostensibly law-abiding citizen.  So how come it’s not more commonplace?  How come so many people out there are looking for an angle, but not willing to pay the price for playing those angles?  I think that’s something like what he’s getting at.  He’d know better than me.

And that’s 2016, folks.  The year my father died, the year a crook worse than any ever seen in the pages of a Richard Stark novel got elected Leader of the Free World (was Walter Karns not available?).  May 2016 rot in hell.  Did that come across as bitter?  Oh well, these moods come upon me at times.  Irish, you know?

Come the New Year (which I do not anticipate great things from, but it’s free to surprise me), I fully expect to finish the main reviewing project of this blog. Once that’s done, we’ll see what’s left to discuss, if anything. Next up is a rather desultory anthology of short stories, the best of which I’ve already reviewed. After that, there’s still six more Parkers, five more Dortmunders, and various odds and ends, some more diverting than others.  And, I shouldn’t forget to mention, a ‘lost’ Westlake novel, published at last.  But the end is near, kids. Hopefully I’ll finish the blog before then (rimshot).

Okay, I do sound bitter, don’t I?   Fuck that.  I don’t write about fictional crime because I don’t believe there’s anything decent in this world, anymore than Stark/Westlake did.  I write about it because sometimes you have to look deep into the darkness in order to know how beautiful the light can be, and how far away from it you are (and the light in turn can warn you of dangerous waters ahead).

You don’t get to a better world by denying what the world is now.  Maybe you don’t get there at all, but at least you can get your bearings, plot a course, and toughen yourself up a bit.  Like Housman said, Mithridates, he died old.  Cranky blinkered fantasies like Cathman’s don’t get you spit.  Look at reality head-on, see people as they are, and yourself most of all, or it’s no good.

I wish all the poison in this world was just a poetic metaphor for life, but a lot of it is in my river.  Still, much less than there was.  I mentioned the humpback whale that swam under the George Washington Bridge a few weeks back, right? That could be a sign or something, right?  Not everything gets worse.

So I’ll end this misbegotten year with a song that acknowledges all the filth out there, but not in resignation–in defiance.  You can listen to a more high-fidelity version here, but I like the video this guy did on YouTube, the images he used. Well, I appreciate them.  Put it that way.



Filed under Donald Westlake novels, Parker Novels, Richard Stark

22 responses to “Review: Backflash, Part 3

  1. Random thoughts:

    Have we ever seen Parker devise a plan this elaborate before? Usually, we’ve seen him join a job that’s already planned and improve things (The Score) or buy a plan (Deadly Edge). This one has details that are Dortmunder-worthy, though a Dortmunder job wouldn’t end up with holding guns on a roomful of people.

    Parker spending the end of the book tying up loose ends (Hazen, Cathman, Ray) reminded me of something else. It took a while to emerge, but when it finally did, it was Robert DeNiro and the Lufthansa heist in Goodfellas.

    At this point, I’m sure Westlake was not interested in another Stark series, but if he had been, Lou Sternberg would have been a good character for one. He’s got a well-defined personality, his inner voice is interesting, and the lives-in-London works-in-the-US lifestyle has lots of possibilities. (He could have a funny manservant!) Of course, he wouldn’t get girls the way Grofield does.

    Dan Wycza is a very kind man. The way he shows genuine empathy to the asthmatic teller foreshadows his letting Hazen live, though the first is very smart, and the second is not.

    • I was thinking it was pretty rare that we see such a complete accounting of one of Parker’s heists. From the initial suggestion, to him recruiting a string, to figuring out how to surmount the obstacles, to obtaining the needed elements, to carrying it out–and then the rest of the string just leaves together with their splits, and Parker has to finish the mopping up operation himself. The Score is the best book of that general type, and this book certainly follows the template it created–Cathman is a variant on Edgars, only he wants a very different kind of revenge on his town than Edgars did. And he doesn’t want to actually get his hands dirty.

      That was a pretty elaborate job in The Score–it required a much larger string. But it didn’t rely on playacting–even though Grofield was involved! Seriously, if Grofield wasn’t in on this one, he is gone. Dead or retired or in Hollywood.

      The Green Eagle Score was arguably even more elaborate. But please note, in all of these cases, somebody comes to Parker with a job. We’re told he’s always casing any place he goes into, instinctively looking for an opportunity (as Dan did when he was on the same gambling boat in Biloxi). But as with Dortmunder, his mind doesn’t seem to work in such a way as that he has an idea, then develops it, then executes it–not unless he’s angry about something. Otherwise, somebody has to come to him with the idea first. Is Westlake making a comment on himself here? We know that quite a few of his books–such as Kahawa–were suggested to him by others. The Parker series itself only became a series because of Bucklin Moon.

      The thing about Goodfellas is that DeNiro’s character basically does himself in by being too careful, making murder the answer to everything. He can’t stand to think of anybody being out there who could tie him to that job. There’s no reason to think any of these guys he’s killing are a threat, and if he was so scared of prison, why’d he do it in the first place? He’s just very very anal. He can’t stand to have any loose ends at all.

      Parker doesn’t like loose ends, but if Hanzen had been gone when Parker arrived, he would have shrugged and said the hell with it, you can’t control everything. But where’s Hanzen gonna go? They took his car. He could have just taken the boat further out on the river, I guess. Moored it along Middle Ground Flats. Honestly, I can’t believe Westlake even knew about that, or he’d have written it in. That would have been the perfect place for Hanzen to live.

      Lou Sternberg is definitely a supporting character who could have held up a book on his own, but I’m not sure his creator was the writer for that book. And having such a hard time with the Grofield series probably convinced him to never promote a supporting player again. They also serve who only stand and wait.

      I was thinking about Butcher’s Moon, and how Wycza humors Devers when he wants to see if they can get the money from those couriers without killing them (he’s also talking about health stuff with some guy at the club they rob). Actually, Carlow is in on that courier heist as well. Dan isn’t kind, so much as he’s sympathetic–Parker calls it the big man’s pity for the weak. But he knows how to turn that off when he works (or Parker wouldn’t work with him). Thing is, the job was essentially over when Hanzen got to him with that bit about how you never know how strong you’ll be if you’re put to the torture. That worried him a bit, because it had the ring of truth to it. Which is why he let Hanzen go. But it’s also why he broke Hanzen’s jaw.

      Now imagine a job that was just Dan, Mike, and Noelle. Why didn’t Westlake let Stark write some short stories about the supporting players? Could have sold them to Playboy in a heartbeat for nice bread (and put some sex in them, unlike the Dortmunder stories). He wrote a bunch of short stories about Dortmunder & Co. He had very protective feelings about Parker, and Stark. He didn’t want to make it too cute. He wouldn’t even tell us if Dan and Noelle hooked up. But I bet they did.

  2. As I stated in part 2, this is my favorite heist of the series (though the heists in The Score and Green Eagle Score are right up there), which places it in the top tier (for me) of the Final 8. (I don’t think the final three are entirely successful, but I do have a soft spot for Ask the Parrot.)

    • I find the final triptych (I belatedly found out Westlake used the same term for it, which I thought only I had ever thought of before you mentioned it) fascinating mainly for the reason that Westlake is attempting to chart a new direction for the series there, innovating right to the end–with, as you say, mixed success, but the central panel remains compelling, all the same.

      Under the very long list of things we might wish him to have done, but can easily understand why he never did, I’d have loved to see what happened to the rest of Parker’s string after they parted ways with him when the job was done. You might argue he’d already done something along those lines with the first three Grofields, though. And he wasn’t entirely thrilled with the results. Basically, the genre demands that you keep throwing complications in the path of the protagonist(s) for as long as the story continues. It can’t just be “Dan and Noelle check into a motel and screw for a while, then they vacation in Mexico, then he decides to try the pro wrestling circuit again and she becomes his sexy manager, and then they see this bank that looks a bit soft ….” But I’d read it.

      With Parker, the best heist doesn’t always mean the best book, but you knew that already.

    • Parker would have taken out that camera first.

      It sounds like a lot of money, except of course having read all these books, we’re thinking “How much did the company lie about the value for the insurance?” and “How much will they get on the dollar for those hot trinkets?” and “How long will they even stay alive, with other crooks closing in on them?”

      Reminds me more of Cops and Robbers. Using a major public event as a cover. I bet that beard is fake. Anyway, looks like more fun than waiting for some glitzy ball to drop in the glitzy outdoor mall that is Times Square now. I went to bed a bit after 10, btw. That’s my alibi, and I’m sticking to it. 😐

  3. Greg Tulonen

    Reading this again (for the sixth or seventh time), I discovered a small discrepancy: When Cathman first makes contact with Parker, Parker asks him, ““Howell gave you this phone number?” and Cathman replies: “His wife did. I presume she’s his wife.”

    But later, this explanation is forgotten, as Parker muses: “Howell should never have given Cathman Parker’s name and phone number. When he’d done it, of course, Howell hadn’t known he’d soon be dead, unable to keep control of what was going on. Still, he shouldn’t have exposed Parker this way.”

    It never really made much sense to me that Howell would have given Cathman Parker’s name and phone number. Why would he have done this? For what purpose? It’s (just) slightly more plausible that Cathman would have phoned Howell’s home after his death and asked for the name and number of a colleague. Even that’s not perfect, but Stark has to get Cathman and Parker introduced without a lot of fuss. He just seems to have forgotten his own solution midway through the novel.

    As always in the final eight, Parker could use another Handy McKay (I’m assuming Handy didn’t survive the time warp), or you know, a couple of burner phones. But then again, this one was set in the ’80s, we decided, so no burner phones either.

    • Yeah, that’s a mistake, though a very minor one. Parker might easily assume Howell’s wife (or whatever) wouldn’t have given Cathman the number unless Howell told her to do so in the event of his not coming back from the job.

      Or in his mind, if Howell’s woman did it, Howell really did it, because he arranged things so that it was even possible for her to give Cathman the number. Parker’s mind can work that way–you are responsible for whatever you allowed to happen, intentionally or not, as Larry Lloyd was responsible for allowing Paul Brock to find him through a cyber-security lapse (something Parker could never understand the workings of, but he understands when somebody is unprofessional about something).

      It’s the kind of minor issue that shows up in several of these later books, and one must always wonder if he left those in there on purpose, the flaw in the Navajo Rug. If you could find one in each of the Final Eight (and only one) then we’d have proof. It’s not on the level of the one in Flashfire, which also involves a phone. I can’t find any explanation at all for that one, convincing or otherwise.

      Why would Mrs. Howell (the third, I presume?) have given Cathman the number? He’s not offering her any money for it, that we learn of. If she’s too far out of the loop to know she shouldn’t do this, she ought to be too far out to know the number. Parker had to offer a lot of money to an associate’s widow in The Sour Lemon Score to get information out of her. As you say, the point is to explain where this point of vulnerability came from, which substantiates Parker’s ultimate conclusion that he should have killed Howell, even though all of this fol-de-rol about legalized gambling led to one of his nicer scores. He still hates having to clean up a mess.

      The problem with burner phones, as you know I’m going to bring up, is that this isn’t really taking place at the time the book was published, and they don’t exist. The application goes back around nine years. I don’t think there were even easily available cellphones you could just throw away at the time Backflash takes place. They were still clunky oversized extravagances. But as you know, even in the 21st century, Parker is still never once seen using one. Meaning that he considers them the ultimate vulnerability. And so they are.

  4. Ok, am I being punked, here? I’ve always heard the “Final Eight” were the weakest of the series, that none of the installments in this batch were as good as the first sixteen entries. And I’m sitting here like….no? No, so far I’ve been having a blast with this era. Not only did I love Backflash, I found it even better than Comeback.

    And I feel that’s important because, in my opinion, this book was the real challenge for Westlake and the “Final Eight”. It was one thing for Westlake to stick the landing once after years of no practice, even more so since Comeback had already had a good chunk of it written in the late 80’s. But could he do it again? And this time completely from scratch? If you ask me, the answer is a resounding yes!

    Like with the previous book, I really got a kick out of the heist hook. I love the atmosphere of boats cruising the water during the night and Backflash captured that well.

    You guys mentioned several previous installments this book was related to. All valid comparisons drawn, but the book Backflash reminded me of most was The Man With The Getaway Face . It’s the second book of this new batch, that’s mostly focused on a heist with the first two parts simply being about how Parker and co. plan it, where the finger who spotted the heist tries to take all the heisters down, and there’s even a scene where Parker goes to a dingy store in town that secretly sells guns on the side.

    The crew this time around were a complete banger. Not a surprise since these are all familiar faces. They were just as well written since the last time we saw them and it was nice to see them for one last spin. One element I found interesting is that, despite being the last we see of Mike, Lou, Dan, and Noelle, we see them leave with their lives intact. Usually, in these big revival series, the long running characters from the old days show up to be killed off. Either for drama ( Samurai Jack Season 5 ) or to reinstate the new nihilistic angle of this world (Garth Ennis’ run on The Punisher MAX). And yet, Westlake let his heisters live this time.

    The new characters are nothing to sneeze at, either. After a rather lukewarm batch of antagonists in Comeback, Cathman, Hanzen, Ray are a welcome upgrade. I have to commend Westlake for Cathman in particular because, I have to admit, I didn’t see his motivation for this heist coming. Much like Edgars as you pointed out.

    Hanzen might not count as an antagonist because he wasn’t a willing accomplice, but either way you see him, he was a great character. I too was initially bothered by Parker killing him, for me it had to do with the seeming pointlessness of Westlake dragging out this poor guy’s death. But then I realized something: During the boat ride back, Parker muses that Hanzen might make it out of this alive because he came clean and didn’t rat willingly. Parker is lying through his teeth and Hanzen knows this so he pointedly tells Parker not to give him hope, that it’ll just waste time. Parker himself agrees with this, and proceeds to not lie again. But then Dan takes pity on Hanzen and merely breaks his jaw. Parker initially agrees with this…until he realizes that Hanzen could readily identify them to the cops and so he goes back to kill him.

    In other words: Dan gave Hanzen hope, and in the end that only ended up wasting both Hanzen and Parker’s time.

    God, that reporter Manchester got on my nerves. That whole line where he inwardly praised Noelle for being “so brave” made me wanna toss him into a life boat too. Not gonna lie, I was pleasantly surprised to see Westake punch back against this gross condescending “compassion”. Especially since this was the 90’s where the backlash to this sentiment wasn’t as prominent.

    I didn’t mind Parker getting bonked in the head by Ray. I mean, that is how the criminal world operates. Sometimes, even when against a professional, some punk with a gun can get lucky. Hell, Menlo got lucky in The Mourner .

    Funnily enough, I actually wasn’t bothered by Parker slapping Sue Cahill and then threatening to knock her teeth out. Thing is, this scene is fairly similar to how Parker and co. took care of that one guard in Deadly Edge . In both scenarios, we have someone who’s trying to play hero. Someone who obviously thinks they’re gonna be the big badass of the hostages and bravely stand up to the evil villainous robbers. Only to get their ass sat down after eating a fistful of humble pie. In other words, I think Westlake’s just using a classic trope of crime fiction (hell, in other uses of this trope, the consequences for would be heroism were significantly harsher)…..Wait, since when did I start explaining a potentially problematic Westlake moment to you ? Did I get the right script?

    Overall, another excellent entry. Again, I’m surprised with how much I loving these. I didn’t expect them to be bad, of course, but I was expecting the quality to drop and so far, it hasn’t. All in all, I’m super excited for the next installment which, according to the list is Flashfi-oh…ohhh……oh no.

    • I know you’ve heard the Final Eight are softer, and so have I, but you never heard it from me. One thing I wanted to get across when I got to these books–and the first three Parkers I read were from the Final Eight–was that they were in no way a betrayal or diminishment of what had come before. They added, very credibly and intelligently, to the Canon. They hold up beautifully, which is all the more remarkable, given that Parker was originally created as an homage to people like Dillinger and Sutton, as well as to writers like Hammett and Burnett–so he was archaic and retro even when he first appeared–all the more so when he re-appeared. But somehow, it still just works.

      They’re different, because they have to be–a lot of change happens in a quarter century–to the world around us, and to the stories we tell about it. Crime fiction had changed. While Stark remains an old school crime writer, just like Parker remains an old school heister, and Westlake continues to type everything out on a Smith Corona Silent Super, they all must hew to the unbending law of Nature–Adapt or Die. (And Westlake has to obey a related law, Publish or Perish).

      I would say the way this one resembles The Man With the Getaway Face is that Parker has a successful heist, there’s a string member who has betrayed him (this time out of fear, not greed), and he has to go clean up the after-heist mess created by things he didn’t anticipate, while his associates (in the earlier book, just Handy) go their separate ways. So structurally, yes. But in other respects, much more like The Score. And really, not that much like any of the previous jobs, because Westlake tried not to ever write the same book twice. Patterns recur in fiction, as in life, but good fiction, like Life, always finds variations. (Or should I say variants?)

      The business with Hanzen echoes a bit of business in Butcher’s Moon. Which also involves Wycza and Carlow. Stan Devers is with those two, and they’re out to get mob money from some couriers–Stan says maybe they don’t have to kill them all, just wound one of them, and the other two will give up. Wycza and Carlow, though skeptical, say sure, give the kid’s idea a try. It doesn’t work. They go back to Plan A. If you’re a guy doing something that isn’t nice, not much point in pretending to be a nice guy. But at the same time, if you can find a way to limit the casualties, sure, why not? The goal isn’t to leave more dead bodies lying around. The goal is to get the money. Whatever works best. That’s the ethical principle here. If you want to call it that.

      Going back to your point, most of Parker’s serious problems in The Man With the Getaway Face stem from Handy feeling sorry for Stubbs–unintentionally giving him the means to escape from the dark cellar they’ve locked him in until the heist is done. Forcing Parker to do post-heist cleanup work he’d just as soon have avoided. (It also gets Stubbs killed, but probably that was happening no matter what.)

      And the point is, Handy is a good person–when he’s not actively working, at which point he’ll kill you if you get in his way, and never worry about it afterwards. And that can create a conflict–between what you do and who you are. Maybe that’s why Handy retired, but he was never what you’d call 100% retired. Character splits always make for good fiction, and interesting people. Nobody is all of a piece.

      I might point out that in Deadly Edge, the guard isn’t slapped to the ground, and threatened with the prospect of expensive dental work. The psychology employed there is a bit subtler. (Though the implicit threat is no different). But we’ve spent enough time in Cahill’s head to know she’s very much not a good person, she’s enjoyed bullying and intimidating others, and now she’s finding out that her kind of power doesn’t work in this kind of situation. She wasn’t trying to be a hero, so much as she was trying to be in charge, as she always does. Old habits die hard. Just make sure you don’t die along with them. And since she doesn’t care about other people, saying “You don’t want to get these other people killed” isn’t going to work with her. “You don’t want to spend a lot of time in a dentist’s chair”–that works. Because her face is literally her fortune, and she can’t afford to have anything happen to it.

      I’ve mentioned in the past that most of the time, the way Parker does violence is very zen. (The Hunter being a notable exception, but we’ve discussed why that is). There’s a Zen parable (I think I got it from Joseph Campbell?) about a Samurai sent to kill a man by his feudal Lord. The man, knowing Death is upon him, spits in his assassin’s face. And the Samurai is enraged by the insult–so he leaves. He’ll kill the man later, once he’s regained his composure. He will kill, but never in hot blood. Because that, as he sees it, would be a sin. I don’t think Parker cares about sin, but he knows it’s always better to cast a cold eye–on Life, on Death–horseman pass by! He slaps Cahill with no emotion of any kind. He gets no pleasure from it at all. Just a workman using his hands.

      So you are going to be agnostic about when this book is set? That might be a smart move, but you know, sometimes I like a bit of creative stupidity. 😉

      • When it comes to the whole timeline situation, well, your argument is pretty convincing. That actually reminds me of something I forgot to mention in my original post.

        If Backflash was meant to be a sort of prequel (not entirely one though), maybe Westlake was slightly evoking Lawrence Block’s When The Scared Ginmill Closes. It’s the sixth installment in the Matthew Scudder series that actually took place before the fifth installment, where he began kicking his alcoholism in earnest, and then the seventh book pretty much picked up after his development from Eight Million Ways To Die . Maybe Westlake thought to do something similar?

        • Pretty sure he read everything Block wrote (maybe not all the ones Block wrote as Jill Emerson, of which I’ve read zero, so I really have no idea). So yes. I think he’d be interested in how that worked out, and how people responded to it. But the difference here is that he doesn’t tell us it’s set before Comeback. Not explicitly. He just names the book Backflash, sticks in the odd few nigh-indectible hints. And lets us decide for ourselves. I have decided one way. Others are free to decide differently.

          But as far as I can see, nobody else has ever twigged to this before me. I’m sure somebody did. But that somebody didn’t write book reviews for money, nor did that person write endless rambling blog articles for bupkus. (What is wrong with me?)

          • Dare I ask if you happened to catch Lodge 49, during that sadly brief moment in time it was on to be caught? (Can still stream it now, obviously).

            Because pretty sure at least one writer on that show was a fan of both Westlake and Block, and created a character based at least partly on both of them. Played by Paul Giamatti (who was a producer for Lodge 49). God, I miss that show. And yet, I’m kind of glad it went out on such a high note. Well, in the same sense Twin Peaks did (both times).

            • I have not, unfortunately (didn’t even know it existed til now). But you already sold me with “Paul Giamatti playing a character inspired by Westlake and Block”. I’ll have to check it out.

              • He shows up in season 2, but might be hard to figure out what’s happening without watching season 1 first. Short seasons, naturally. The days of 20-30 ep seasons is pretty much gone, except for the network boilerplate. (And The Simpsons, naturally. On a network. 22 eps a year. Not boilerplate. Formula, sure. Formula is fine. So long as you know what to do with it.)

                If you watch, at some point you will find out what The Impossible Dream sounds like in French.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s