Review: Flashfire

“No,” Parker said.

All three were disappointed, gazing at him as though he’d let them down in some unexpected way. Carlson said, “Could I ask why?”

“You’ve got a place to stay,” Parker said. “If I ask, you’ll tell me how the mansion won’t trace back to any of you after it’s all over.”

“Sure,” Carlson said.

“But that isn’t the job,” Parker told him. “That’s nothing but the safe house. The job is still a whole lot of jewelry, twelve million dollars’ worth of jewelry, completely surrounded by people with weapons who don’t want you to get your hands on it. From this idea today–blow up something a little farther out of town as a distraction–I can see you guys like to be gaudy. That’s fine, fires and explosions have their place, but I think you mean to be gaudy in Palm Beach, and it won’t work out for you any better than it did for the movie stars.”

Fantastic fortune, thou deceitful light
That cheats the weary traveler by night
Though on a precipice each step you tread,
I am resolved to follow where you lead.

Aphra Behn

September 23, 2011. Not much more than five years ago. Having been watching Payback a lot on TNT (curse you Maria Bello, and your warm knowing brown eyes), having gone from that to Point Blank on TCM (curse you Lee Marvin, and your cold fathomless blue-grey eyes), noting the differences and similarities in the stories, I was curious. I knew both movies were based on the same book. I knew Richard Stark was a pseudonym for some guy named Westlake.

The library I work for didn’t have The Hunter, or any of the First Sixteen, but we had three of the Final Eight, and the earliest was this. So I went up to the stacks and got it. September 23, 2011. Nobody’s charged it out since. Why bother when you can download? Honestly, I’m wondering if this library thing has a future to it.

I finished the book same day I took it out. I wasn’t what you’d call blown away, but I wanted more. I read the other two. They went fast too. I started hitting used bookstores, then ordering a lot of books online, vintage paperbacks, old hardcovers, U. of Chicago reprints.  I ran out of Parker novels. I moved on to Grofield. Then Tobin. Then I started reading the books Westlake wrote as Westlake. I finally accepted that I’d have to read all of them, every last book on that long long bibliography, because somehow they were all connected, infinitely varied in subject, tone, approach, style–but all about the same thing, underneath. There was this subtle satiric sensibility at the back of all of them.  I was, you might say, hooked.

I started discussing Westlake at The Violent World of Parker (now vanished from the internet, has anybody heard from Trent?), and Nick Jones’ Existential Ennui (still extant, but not talking about Westlake much these days). I published a guest article on the former site, in which I started promulgating my common sense observation that Parker is a wolf in human form, which was not uniformly well-received, as I recall.

I was my usual charming self, the very soul of diplomacy, on this and other subjects (including the awful movie made from this book I’m supposed to be reviewing now).  The conversation grew heated, and I got banned from that site’s discussion forum.  I been thrown out of worse joints for less reason.  Trent and I remained on amicable terms, and he was later gracious enough to plug TWR on VWOP.  Seems like a million years ago now.

Nick Jones, who had encouraged me to write that guest article, sort of tactfully hinted I was getting a mite too long-winded in my responses to his articles (oh now, I think that’s a bit unfair).  He suggested I might want to start my own blog, an idea I dismissed out of hand as impractical and overly time-consuming. And 161 posts later (counting this one), here we stand, back where it all began.  Thus endeth my rumination on causality, spare time, and the internet.

I believe this is the third or fourth time I’ve read Flashfire.  That’s more often than I’ve read many of the other Parker novels; the ones that aren’t The Hunter, The Score,  Slayground, etc.  That’s partly because I wanted to compare the book and the movie.  Partly because I read it first, and I reread all these books periodically.

But mainly because I want to  understand why this one bothers me so much.  Why it seems so much less right than any of the others, less than the sum of its parts.  It’s by far the worst book in the series, one of the weakest novels Westlake ever wrote under any name.  And still a good read for the most part.  Westlake never wrote anything he didn’t put something of himself into.  I’m here to try and understand him, and as I have said before, you often learn more about a writer from his or her misfires.  The most important question to ask about a misfire is always “What was the writer aiming at when he/she pulled the trigger?”

Westlake’s peak as a writer came between 1962 (the year of The Hunter) and 1976 (the year of Dancing Aztecs).  In that narrow window of time, he produced over fifty novels, along with quite a lot of less important work.  A lifetime’s worth of writing compressed into fourteen years.  What followed that productive era was often brilliant–he was a long way from finished, in fact he had almost as many books ahead of him as behind him (if you don’t count the sleaze paperbacks).  But he was working more slowly, having a harder time coming up with workable ideas, ways he could top himself.

Stark and Coe, his two most important alter-egos, deserted him.  The publishing market was no longer so well-suited to the kind of writing he did best.  He had to change with the times, and the times were not to his taste (probably neither were most of the books being published, but when is that ever not true?).  He was slotted as a humorous writer, and he liked writing in that vein, but it wasn’t enough for such a restless probing intellect.

Having resumed writing as Stark in the 90’s, he could not let the voice go again, as he had in the 70’s.  He needed to keep going.  But he struggled at finding ways for Parker to remain relevant in this not so brave new world he went on improbably surviving in.  Dortmunder is equally anachronistic, leading to many an absurd sitution but Dortmunder is supposed to be absurd.  Parker isn’t. Parker won’t stand for that.  Dortmunder is Fortune’s Fool.  Parker is nobody’s fool.  Not even Stark’s.

So that’s all well and good, but how do we explain this book, in which Parker repeatedly does things that could not be more out of character?  Impersonating a priest, then a rich foppish playboy.  Making jokes that display a familiarity with contemporary popular culture.  Pursuing a vendetta, which is very Parkeresque, but a vendetta so extreme and irrational that it stretches the boundaries of credulity, even within the context of this fictional reality.  Revealing himself as a secret romantic; basically confessing, both to himself and a total stranger that he’s madly in love with Claire, who is only marginally in the book.  Though at least we learn something about her reading habits.

And on the whole, you’d have to say Parker is a whole lot less effective here than he normally is, making mistake after mistake, very nearly dying as a result. He wins out mainly by virtue of his strange luck; a bit too strange for me this time.

Was Westlake testing Parker again, putting him to the question, as he had in past books where Parker seems to be acting out of character, but really isn’t?  Or did he have an idea for a book involving some other criminal protagonist, and decided for various reasons (commercial, let’s say) that it needed to be a Parker novel?

Personally, I think this should have maybe been the next Grofield, but how many people even remembered Grofield by then?  All those novels were out of print, and so were the Parker novels he’d first appeared in.  That would change soon, but at the time of writing this one, Westlake only had two marketable series characters, and Dortmunder clearly wouldn’t work.  Westlake wasn’t doing so well with one-shot characters of late.  It’s just a theory, but I wonder if that’s the answer to this identity puzzle–it wasn’t originally going to be a Parker novel at all.  Once it was, he tailored it to Parker as best he could, with very mixed results.

Whatever its origins, the final result is an interesting but frequently unsatisfying work, that still has that Starkian touch to it, which pulls you along, keeps your attention.  Were that not the case, I wouldn’t be typing this now.  So let me start typing the synopsis.

The book begins with a bank robbery, already in progress, in Nebraska.  Except that Parker isn’t in the bank, he’s some distance away, throwing a Molotov cocktail through a plate glass window into a gas station convenience store, to serve as a distraction.  The rest of the string is robbing the bank, and will use a stolen fire department vehicle to make their getaway, blending in with the real fire department.

(And right away, I’ve got a problem–a firebomb is not a discriminating weapon, and casualties are not unlikely.  Parker doesn’t like killing civilians, because it brings down too much heat from the law.  Obviously the convenience store is open if the gas station is (that’s where he gets the gas), and there’s no mention of whether anybody is in there or not.  Unusually sloppy work for Parker–and Stark.  The movie skirted this entire issue by having somebody else set the diversionary blaze, and Parker is upset they killed somebody, which is even worse.)

This is not Parker’s plan; he’s just been called in at the last minute to sub for Hurley (last seen in Butcher’s Moon), who recommended Parker after he dropped out. Parker got kind of a weird vibe from Hurley when they talked over the phone, but apparently he needed the work–some time must have passed since his previous two successful heists.  My feeling is that this book actually takes place pretty close in time to when it was written, unlike the previous two.  The internet is referenced, for the very first time in this series.  The guy we see thinking about it briefly is no Wally Knurr. Not only is he not web-literate, he’s just barely lit-literate.  The age of idiots online has dawned.

This is the last time we see Parker involved in a bank robbery (unless you count armored car heists, and I don’t).  First time was in The Score, but they were knocking over a whole town, with Parker overseeing the operation, and the banks were both closed for the night so it’s not a typical job.  Second was The Sour Lemon Score, the only classic daylight bank robbery in 24 books about a supposed bank robber.  This is the third time, and he never even sees the bank.  Or his money, except from a distance.

Melander, Carlson, and Ross.  Parker never worked with these guys before.  They like him, and they’re professional enough; maybe a bit too flashy, but good.  And ambitious–they pulled this heist, they belatedly inform him, only to bankroll a much larger one elsewhere.  They want him to come in on that.  Parker hates surprises.  But he’ll bite.  What’s the job?

Jewelry.  Twelve million dollars worth.  They’ll only get ten cents on the dollar, and they’ll have to use three different fences to unload the merchandise.  It’s going to be in Palm Beach, which for those of you who don’t know (and at this point in time, we all should know), is the world’s most overprivileged sandbar, off the coast of Florida.  No way to drive on or off it without crossing a drawbridge–no crocodiles in the moat, but probably sharks, and lots of patrol boats. The bridges can all be closed very quickly if anything big happens, like a major robbery.  Parker expresses a disinclination to participate.  He’d like his money now, please.  But wait, there’s more!

This is why they need the bank job money.  They’re spending 100k to put a down-payment on a beachfront mansion formerly owned by two movie stars, who found out Palm Beach society frowns on new money, and on people who like to draw attention to themselves (hmm).  The place got kind of trashed, and is definitely a fixer-upper, but all they need to fix here is an excuse for them to be in the richest part of Palm Beach, so they can hide out on the large fenced-off property, while the law looks for them in hotels and condos, and stops every boat on the water around that glorified sandbar.

A dodge we’ve seen many times before in these books; holing up near the site of the robbery until the heat fades, but Parker’s not buying it.  Something will go wrong, somewhere down the line.  Palm Beach and its pampered denizens are too well-protected, and there’s no escape route if things go sour.  He’s out.  Now fork over the cash. His share comes to $21,319.  He does not take IOU’s.

There isn’t enough money.  They knew going in that might happen, and what the consequences might be.  Just a bit over 85k.  They’ll have to borrow the remaining 15k, and pay back 30k.  If they give Parker a quarter of the take, they’ll have to borrow even more, and it cuts into their profit margin too much.  They promise he’ll get his share, and a bit extra, once the job is over.  But for the moment, they’re going to have to stiff him. Give him a tiny stack of bills, which they say is in addition to his share, once they’re ready to give it to him.  Like he’s the hired help, and this is his tip.

Understand, none of these guys has ever read a Parker novel.  Andy Kelp could have told them what a terrible idea this is.  They’re not like Mal Resnick, Auguste Menlo, George Uhl, George Liss, or any of the other former colleagues who just decided to take the whole boodle by eliminating the rest of the string.  They won’t kill him.  They have professional standards.

And his only response to that is to think about how stupid they are not to kill him.  He’s sure as hell going to kill them, and take their entire Palm Beach score as back interest on the debt, assuming they succeed.  The button in his head has been pushed.  These are dead men walking, far as he’s concerned.  He’s going to heist the heist.  But for that he’s going to need a bankroll of his own.

Thus begins Parker’s One Man Crime Wave, which is for many the most enjoyable part of this book, though I found it oddly disappointing this time through, because it’s too rushed.  Stark packs a lot of story into a small space, but this is too much, and I’m not even going to try to cover it all, because it would take too long.

Overall, not a terrible premise for a Parker novel, but it’s problematic on several counts.  First of all, by pulling a series of small quick scores, on a gun shop, a check cashing place, two drug dealers, a multiplex theater, and some rich people’s houses in Texas, he quickly amasses almost as much money as he’d get if he actually had gone in with the gaudy trio on their big heist, and it had succeeded.  So this isn’t about the money, because he could just go home to Claire with all that, and then wait for the guys to show up with his share, and he could kill them then if he wanted.  Assuming they didn’t get themselves killed or jailed, which would save him a lot of effort and risk.

This is the part of the book where he poses as a priest (collar and all), who is raising money for his church, and a more inappropriate look for him is hard to imagine.  The point is, he takes on several false identities, and sets up a bunch of bank accounts, all in order to set up a convincing enough false identity as a rich Texan/Ecuadorian of American parentage (and citizenship) named Daniel Parmitt, who can infiltrate Palm Beach society and wait for the heist to happen.  Parmitt has a mustache (Claire later advises him to make it look like Errol Flynn’s ‘stache, trims it for him herself, between bouts of intercourse).  He wears light-colored slacks, colorful shirts, and a yachting cap.  Well, at least it’s not a cowboy hat.  Okay, so there is a more inappropriate look for him after all.

In order to get high quality fake ID as Parmitt, he goes to a guy Ed Mackey refers him to (a brief phone cameo by Brenda, who is clearly still wondering if she and Parker might end up together someday).  Julius Norte, a specialist in this field.  He seems professional enough, but when Parker comes back for his papers, Norte tries to kill him, because another client sent some thugs to whack him, so nobody would be alive who knew about his new identity (shades of The Man With the Getaway Face).  Parker would know too much if he let him go.  Parker has to kill Norte’s hulking bodyguard, and then has a cowed Norte kill the tied-up thugs himself, with a gun Parker then confiscates, so he’ll have leverage over Norte.

Now you see up top where he’s telling these guys they’re too gaudy, that their plan is too complicated, improbable, and risky?  It’s not like him to live in a glass house.  He’s being at least as gaudy as them.  There’s too many moving parts here already for a Parker book, and we’re just 74 pages in.

Then he meets Claire at a hotel in Miami they’ve stayed at before–as soon as he resolved to pull this risky scheme of his, he told her to vacate the house at Colliver Pond in New Jersey, so she couldn’t be taken by his former partners and used as a bargaining chip.  She learned something from the events of Deadly Edge, and complies with alacrity.  It’s winter, anyway, good excuse to get warm.  She’s sitting by the pool when he arrives, wearing a red bikini, and reading Aphra Behn (I think the above quote might help explain both her and her creator’s affinity for that author).  He sees her from across the pool, drawing many a lustful glance.  And if you’d believe it, he begins reminiscing on how their relationship began.

It had been a while since he had seen her at a different angle like this, coming upon her as though she were a stranger, and it reminded him of the first time they’d met, when he’d opened a hotel room door expecting some flunky driver and had seen this cool and beautiful woman instead.  When he told her then he hadn’t expected a woman in the job because it was unprofessional she’d said, “It doesn’t sound like a very rewarding profession,” and already he’d been snagged.  Closed off before then, indifferent to the world except as it had to be tamed and manipulated, he hadn’t known he could be snagged, but here she was.  And here again.  Still here.

Of course he’s snagged, that’s been obvious since the end of The Rare Coin Score, but we’re not supposed to see him thinking about it.  It’s supposed to be unstated, implicit, instinctual, oblique.  This is too wordy, too self-conscious.  This is Stark putting thoughts in Parker’s mind that don’t belong there.  And how could Parker be unaware he could be snagged, after all that happened with Lynn in the first book?

(This scene would work for Grofield just fine.  He could be meeting his wife Mary, or romancing an actual stranger, as he so often does.  In fact, it reads quite a bit like similar scenes between Grofield and one of his blondes, also in warm weather settings, near water.)

But Parker is working now.  Yes, his relationship with Claire is different, his sex drive is no longer so cyclical as it once was, but we’ve never seen him show any interest in sex when he’s on the job before now.  You can justify it (he’s saying goodbye, just in case, and he’s got some time to kill before the final phase begins), but there’s so much else to justify in the course of this story. It’s a lot of extra work for the reader, who doesn’t get to enjoy Claire’s lithe body as recompense.

But this is the only sex scene in the book, you see (rather on the tame side)–the main female character here isn’t Claire, and isn’t an option for Parker (him being snagged and all), and there had to be some erotic content, given the genre.  This is it, plausible or not.  Claire is seen no more in the book, but her presence continues to be felt.

As Part 1 ends, Parker leaves her, and drives over the bridge into Palm Beach.  In a leased Jaguar.  Wearing a yachting cap, a brightly colored shirt, a pencil thin lounge lizard mustache, and a silly-ass playboy’s expression on his face, or at least what he hopes is a reasonable facsimile thereof.  It’s maybe a bit like what Jules Feiffer once said about Superman.  That Clark Kent is his sardonic commentary on the society he’s blending into.  (Yeah, the title character in Kill Bill said the same thing, but he stole that from Jules Feiffer.)

Before he realized they were going to shortchange him, Parker told his former colleagues he didn’t want to know all the details of their heist, so he doesn’t know where this house is, when the heist will take place, or what high society event they’re boosting the jewels from.  Now he needs to know all of that, and to establish Daniel Parmitt as a legitimate aspirant to the Palm Beach scene.  And for all that, he needs to go house-shopping, for which he needs a real estate agent.

Enter The Amateur in the story, Leslie Mackenzie–this amateur is going to be on Parker’s side for a change.  A blonde in her early 40’s, a bit on the hefty side but appealingly so, a penchant for pastel-colored pantsuits.  Quite the contrast with Claire (whose hair color remains a mystery to this point in the series.)  She shows ‘Daniel’ around, and gives him a bit of background info, as much for our benefit as his.  She feels this newb should understand Palm Beach proper isn’t about how much money you have (poor people can’t afford to live there, except as servants of one type or another), but rather how you got it.  Some people seemingly have a hard time figuring that out.

“Donald Trump never fit in here,” Leslie said, having pointed out Mar-a-Lago, which for many years had belonged to Mrs. Merriweather Post, who definitely did fit in here, and which after her death had been for years a white elephant on the market–nobody’s inherited money, no matter how much of it there was, could afford the upkeep of the huge sprawling place–until Trump had grabbed it up, expecting it to be his entrée to Palm Beach, misunderstanding the place, believing Palm Beach was about real estate, like New York, never getting it that Palm Beach was about money you hadn’t earned.

“I should be pleased Mr. Trump took over Mar-a-Lago,” Leslie said, “I think we should all be pleased, because we certainly didn’t want it to turn into Miss Havisham’s wedding cake out there, but to be honest with you, I think a place must be just a little déclassé if Donald Trump has even heard of it.”

(Mr. Westlake certainly did have his eye on Mr. Trump, didn’t he?  Did you know dear Mrs. Merriweather-Post gave Mar-a-Lago to the Federal government to be a sort of winter White House, but none of the subsequent Presidents wanted to use it?  So it devolved back to her heirs, and they just wanted to sell, but not to that poseur Trump, who would obviously commercialize it in order to afford the upkeep of the place, as indeed he has done.  But nobody else wanted it, and he threatened to build stuff that would block its view of the ocean, so they ended up selling it for less than half his original offer.  And now Mrs. Merriweather-Post’s dream has been fulfilled.  And I can almost hear her screaming from rich people hell, “That’s not what I meant!!!”  So picky.)

Westlake obviously spent time in Palm Beach, soaking up the scene, and generally finding it ghastly.  The architecture is banal and derivative, the cultural scene barely can be said to exist, it’s all private clubs and mediocre McMansions, and leading citizens who only live there from November through May, and probably in some place with mild summers the rest of the year.  Weather is for the poor.

But again, I’m taken aback when we’re told Parker is actually observing the architecture, thinking to himself that it seems inspired by the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier, and of course Parker wouldn’t make any such observation, because he doesn’t care about architecture, except to the extent it makes breaking and entering easier or harder for him.  Stark should be making these observations, but somehow he’s projecting his own interests onto Parker in this one.  The line between observer and observed is breaking down.

But of course what Parker’s really looking for is the house Melander purchased (partly with Parker’s money), while pretending to be a rich Texan.  And he spots it easily enough.  Leslie happens to have some sheets on it, useful information, alarm systems, floor plans, and she’s more than willing to hand this over to ‘Daniel’ when he asks, since that house is sold.

Having said goodbye to her for the day, he breaks into the house, finding it deserted, but not quite empty.   There’s a few bottles of beer in the fridge, and a metal footlocker full of guns in the garage.  He’s found them.  They’ll be back, and he’ll be ready.  He walks back to his car, only to see Leslie’s car nearby.  She followed him.  He needs to know how much she’s figured out, and who she might have been talking to, before he kills her for the crime of being stupid.

But she’s not stupid.  In the ensuing conversation, that becomes increasingly clear.  She saw something wasn’t quite right about Daniel Parmitt–she saw halfway through the mask Parker perpetually puts on around law-abiding citizens, to cover his true self.  Her background in selling high-priced real estate means she’s good at background checks, and she knows now there was no Daniel Parmitt until about two months ago (Parker hasn’t figured out yet how much more quickly these things can be checked online–technology is catching up with him).

His interest in the movie star mansion was a bit too obvious.  His asking for the info on it when he knew it wasn’t for sale was a dead giveaway.  He, like the men he intends to rob and kill, had  underestimated how hard it is to pass oneself off as legit in Palm Beach.  And he’d underestimated her. Most people wouldn’t have noticed the things about the front he put up that didn’t fit, because most people don’t notice anything that isn’t directly relevant to them.  He’s a thief, not a huckster–he counts on that lack of situational awareness in most people to get him through when he misses some crucial detail in his disguises.

Leslie, by contrast, knows very well that if he decides she’s a threat to him, he’ll kill her.  But she smells money, and she wants it.  She wants out of her life.  The same way Mary Deegan grabbed onto Grofield, way back in The Score, she’s grabbing onto him.  He’s her ticket out of an unrewarding existence.  One way or another.  And here we may perceive another little scrap of evidence Westlake might have originally toyed with making this a Grofield novel, but of course The Score was a Parker, so maybe not.  Grofield actually does care about architecture.  (And sometimes blondes he’s not married to.)

And here comes the scene that probably got this book turned into a movie in the first place (the money shot, if you will).  Parker is willing to consider Leslie’s offer to be his native guide to the Palm Beach jungle.  But he needs to know she’s not wearing a wire.  So she has to strip naked in front of him.  Every ad for that damn movie had that scene, with Lopez stripped down to her underthings while Statham checks her out.  Well, she was the right age and shape.  She wasn’t really the problem with that movie.  She wasn’t enough to sell it with, either.  We’d already seen all there was to see of Ms. Lopez.

Leslie is a bit of a problem for the novel and the movie.  Because she’s the sex interest, but there isn’t going to be any sex.  And she’s yet another moving part added to an already over-complex mechanism, though it’s kind of nice, imagining all her parts moving, as she walks.  Westlake was going through a phase where he liked to write about amply proportioned blondes, and why not?  To some extent, she’s a hybrid of the preacher’s buxom girlfriend from Comeback, and the PR woman from Backflash.  But this time she’s a much more central player.  She is, in fact, a secondary protagonist, the B-Plot girl, going through an identity crisis, a life transition.  But more about that next time.

Parker does his homework on Leslie, which (since he’ll never be an internet guy) means he breaks into the house she shares with her mother and developmentally disabled sister (the book uses an older euphemism).  She checks out fine–she is who she says she is,  the kind of person who might be willing to risk everything to get a new life.  He’s also pleased she didn’t try to use her body to entice him, back at the office, not that there was any chance of that working.  Okay, he’ll give her a try.  He can still kill her if it doesn’t work out.

They meet again, posting once more as realtor and client, checking out a luxury condo.  Mr. Westlake must have had some experience with this type of housing unit (timeshare, maybe), and was none too impressed.  If there’s anything more pathetically predictable than the very rich, it’s the people who futilely aspire to join them.

The condos along the narrow strip of island south of the main part of Palm Beach yearn toward a better life: something English, somewhere among the landed gentry.  The craving is there in the names of the buildings: the Windsor, the Sheffield, the Cambridge.  But whatever they call themselves, they’re still a line of pale concrete honeycombs on a sandbar in the sun.

I’ve never been to Palm Beach, but I’ve been to Hilton Head, and Long Beach Island.  It’s pretty much the same everywhere, up and down the intercoastal waterway.  Palm Beach just costs more.

Parker puts Leslie to the test, and she better not flunk. He tells her about these guys he worked with, who stole from him, and now he’s going to steal from them–their money and their lives.  She gulps a bit, but she’s still in.  He tells her what he knows about the heist.

She knows what the auction in question must be–Mrs. Clendon’s jewels.  She was the grande dame of Palm Beach,  and her collection of baubles and trinkets was the envy of every other society matron there.  She willed her jewels to a local bank official who got her interested in improving the local library.  They’ll be auctioned off to raise money so that all the hoi polloi there who can’t afford their own personal libraries can obtain free reading material (Let them eat books!).

Leslie is massively let down–this is a dead end.   There is no way these guys can get the jewels, they’re too well-guarded; from the bank, to the armored car, to Mrs. Fritz’s house (the newly reigning grande dame), back to the bank again.  Parker, just from listening to her descriptions, knows immediately that the weak spot is the house.  Full of rich people.  Who will be panicked by some explosion or fire, because that’s what these guys do.  Hundreds of silly stupid socialites, milling around like sheep–the armed security people won’t dare shoot, won’t even know what to shoot at.  In the confusion, they’ll grab the jewels, and get back to their hideout.

There’s no beach by Mrs. Fritz’s house–just a seawall.  He figures they’ll come in from the ocean.  “Like James Bond?” Leslie asks?  “More like Jaws,” Parker responds.  You know, I could see him actually paying attention during parts of that movie.  But it’s still not a good line for him.

So he goes back to the hideout, and they still aren’t there.  He rigs the alarm so that it looks armed, but it’s not.  He breaks into their cache of guns, and rigs the firing mechanisms so that they look armed, but ditto.  He tapes his trusty little Hi-Standard Snub-nose Sentinel .22 to the underside of a Parsons table (nothing to do with clergymen) where he thinks they’ll have him sitting if they catch him there, and decide to interrogate him.

Oh heck, I might as well post an image.  Basically, just another version of the Smith & Wesson Terrier, only the bullets are even smaller.  With Parker, size really does not matter.  It’s how you use it.

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(I’m going to type another niggling little quibble now.  Once he starts on his One Man Crime Wave, Parker thinks he needs better guns.  He’s only got the Sentinel and a .38 Special Colt Cobra, so in Kentucky he finds a closed gun shop along a sparsely traveled road, hijacks a backhoe from the county Highway Dept and uses it to scoop up a bunch of guns from the display window, of which he picks four, and makes his escape. We’re told he chooses this shop because it doesn’t have any guard dogs, so Parker still has more respect for dogs than people, which tracks.

What does not track is that in the course of his misadventures in this book, pretty much the only gun he uses is the Sentinel, because it’s so easily concealed, and he’s mainly shooting people at extreme close range, not necessarily to kill them but sometimes just to get their attention, let them know he’s serious–for that purpose, a smaller caliber weapon works better.  He goes to all this trouble to get better guns, when in reality he had one more gun than he needed already, and the least formidable of them turned out to be the most useful.  This really is a book about overkill–on every possible level.  Well, I guess that tracks with Palm Beach.  Back to synopsis.)

So it’s all going fine.  He’s got the information he needs, where the safe house is, when and where the heist will take place.  Parker figures he can kick back for a bit now, go see how Claire is doing with Aphra Behn or whatever.  This is also really out of character, but what the hell, go with it. Florida does weird things to people.  Why not wolves in human form as well?

On his way there there, these two guys he can see are hired killers waylay him outside a restaurant, and drive him into the Everglades.  He knows they’re going to kill him, figures it’s something to do with Norte and that guy who wants to kill everybody who knows what his name used to be.

He knows he’s got to make his move before they get to wherever they intend to do him in.  He surprises the hoods, makes it out of the car, but the terrain is not favorable, and he gets shot in the back with a rifle, then pushed into the shallow water by the road.  Last we see of him, he’s badly wounded, underwater, blacked out, and there’s two guys with guns who want him dead.  End Part 2.  Part 3 is the round robin section of the book, so we’ll get multiple perspectives, none of them Parker’s.

Earlier in the book, when he’s with Claire, we’re told he’s been shot eight times in his life.  Once would be Lynn shooting him in the belt buckle in The Hunter.  Another would be Auguste Menlo winging him with his Hi-Standard Derringer in The Mourner.  We see him thinking (almost nostalgically) of Little Bob Negli, stinging his ear with his Beretta .25 automatic, in The Seventh.  And of course he got pretty seriously plugged by a Colt 45 wielded by the nefarious Baron, in The Handle, but he went right back into action once he woke up. Claire strokes his scars as they lie in bed, and says she’s lucky for him–he hasn’t been shot since he met her.  Well, even the strangest of luck has its limits.

This is the first time we know of that he’s been shot up so badly, he might actually die.  Only, of course, he won’t.  And I have very mixed feelings about how Westlake finagles that–fantastic fortune indeed!  I have very mixed feelings about this book.  I think that quote I used up top says it all pretty well–this one didn’t really work out for anybody.  But I still read it cover to cover the same day I got it out of the library.  I still found things to enjoy about it this time (not necessarily the same things as in previous readings).

And I’ll still be back with Part 2 next week.  If the Lord of Mar-a-Lago doesn’t blow us all up.  I do hope you’re enjoying rich people hell, dear Mrs. Merriweather-Post.  I hear the amenities are spectacular.  Probably a mite chilly compared to Florida in the summertime, but nothing’s perfect.

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12 Comments

Filed under Donald Westlake novels, Parker Novels, Richard Stark

12 responses to “Review: Flashfire

  1. You make good points, of course, about some of the issues with this book, but I find the one-man crime spree section so propulsive and compelling it carries me over a lot of the bumps. Yes, it’s absurd that Parker quickly raises far more than he’s owed to fund an elaborate and impractical revenge scheme, but… actually, I don’t have a counter-argument here. I just enjoyed it. But yeah, the movie’s pretty god-awful — yet another filmmaker who doesn’t get Parker at all.

    • Again, I think the underlying problem was a subpar production team. Taylor Hackford has made some decent (if hardly stellar) films. It was never going to be Parker, obviously. But the mere fact that they chose this book to adapt indicates how poorly they understood the series. Could not possibly be a worse entry point. Westlake was never lucky with producers, at least not when it came to things adapted from his books.

      And even on a commercial level–you’ve got Jennifer Lopez playing Leslie. She still looks good. She and Statham have okay chemistry, considering they barely touch each other. They’re at similar stages of their careers and life cycles. The ads made it look like they’re having shower sex, when it’s really Statham and a (much much younger) unknown Aussie playing Claire. He had zero chemistry with the Aussie, and of course there’s no story to tell there, since he and Claire have been together a while, and they apparently have no relationship conflicts at all, which I suppose tracks with the book.

      But one of the few things they’re faithful to from the book, other than ‘Parker’ making Leslie strip (and being aroused by her, unlike in the book), is that he won’t cheat on Claire (who for some reason can’t hang out at a plush Miami resort reading Aphra Behn in a red bikini–she went fishing. Claire. Fishing. Seriously?)

      Claire should have been written out entirely, make Leslie the romantic interest, and if they can’t get Lopez back for a sequel (like there’s going to be one), they can get somebody else. But they thought they had a franchise, so they’d signed the Claire actress who has a fanbase of zero for more films that will never be made. Dumb.

      Okay, back to the book–I would have been totally with you about the One Man Crime Wave after readings #1, #2, and even #3. But pretty sure this was reading #4, and it didn’t hold up for me this time. I just sort of shrugged my way through it–no surprises left. It certainly did get my attention originally.

      What got my attention this time, believe it or not, was the Palm Beach Society stuff. Which isn’t to say I think it belongs in a Parker novel. There’s way too much attention paid to characters who don’t really matter, who aren’t really integrated properly into the story. But Westlake obviously wanted to write about this world, and he’s more enthused about it. And you have to admit, the Trump observation was kind of brilliant. No way in hell Westlake didn’t know about that whole winter White House dream of dear Mrs Merriweather-Post’s. Add that to a brief Presidential reference in What’s the Worst That Could Happen?–well–I guess we know the answer to that question now, anyway. He really was spooky, sometimes, Mr. Westlake. He had the sight, as they say.

      I kind of hated Parker victimizing ordinary working schlubs. The guys at the check-cashing place, one of whom gets shot in the leg, and could very well bleed out, even though Parker figures a customer will show up soon and call 911. The drug dealers, okay, but I thought Parker doesn’t go after other criminals as long as they leave him alone. Burglarizing those McMansions in Texas, sure, though it’s more Dortmunder’s line. The gun store in Kentucky, fine, except he didn’t really need the guns. He scared those women at the Multiplex half to death. I know, it’s what he does, only it’s not, usually. Usually he hunts bigger game, but he doesn’t have a pack this time. It’s an interesting look at an alternate career path for Parker, there’s that to be said for it. Though you have to figure security cameras would catch him out, over time.

      Thing is, it kind of undercuts the whole premise of the series–Parker needs a string (which comes with all kinds of risk and vulnerabilities) to make a dishonest living. The One Man Crime Wave is one of the biggest scores he’s ever pulled. Enough to live on for quite a good while, the way he and Claire are set up. He was perfectly happy with 21k from the bank, and by the time this one’s over, he’s got–well, we never even find out exactly how much, but it was 118k just from the check-cashing place and the dealers, and he could have easily doubled that. And it’s all lost at the end, except for what he spent on cheesy rich people clothes. And yachting caps. Accessorizing.

      How is this higher-risk than robbing banks and stadiums with guys like Uhl and Liss? He’s hitting different businesses, legit and illegal. He’s moving between states. He’s not creating any kind of pattern. This could be a new career for him. And not a bad idea at all, because he apparently doesn’t have a ‘mailbox’ anymore. I don’t know what happened to Handy McKay, or why Parker couldn’t find somebody else, but this is the second time now that Parker’s home base has been jeopardized because an associate gave somebody his home phone. How is he not doing something about this enormous gaping hole in his defenses?

      Obviously the real problem with One Man Crime Waves is that they don’t work for a series of books whose hero is a thief. Because it involves hurting a lot of ordinary citizens. And because it’s too damned easy. And because it just doesn’t fit Parker’s M.O. It’s interesting, and the irony is intentional, of course. Parker really isn’t all about money. There are things that matter more to him. I get that. I got it when I first read it, but I found it expressed far more eloquently in the earlier books, once I got to them. Westlake’s finding it very hard to justify Parker’s existence by this point. He’s got to find a way to make him feel real again, in the Information Age. This wasn’t the way. But he kept working at it.

      • I don’t know what happened to Handy McKay, or why Parker couldn’t find somebody else, but this is the second time now that Parker’s home base has been jeopardized because an associate gave somebody his home phone.

        It won’t be the last time either. It’s really three books in a row in the final eight in which Parker’s home phone number gets him in trouble. (I had even more problems with this in the next book, but we’ll get to that.) Might be time to think about cutting the cord.

        • If the cord is Claire, the only way to cut that is for her to leave him–or die. If the cord is the house, she raises that very subject in the final book, I believe. Parker needs some kind of anchor, though. He can’t just wander the human wilderness alone, forever.

          These are all deliberate decisions being made. Westlake wants to make Parker less invulnerable. He’s at least toying with the idea of writing a final book in this series–not sure if he’d have ever done it. He was setting up future plot threads to the last. We can only guess where they’d have led to.

          Firebreak is one of the few Parkers I’ve never reread. Not because I didn’t like it, just never got around to reading it again (and there was no movie to compare it with). If your quibbles are technological in nature, I will of course bow to your superior expertise. But I liked the way that story gets resolved.

          What happens there is inadvertent, unintended. What happens in Backflash happens through an unpredictable series of events. But for Hurley to give these guys he clearly has doubts about Parker’s home number, when there was absolutely no need for it, it could have all gone through channels–honestly, I think Parker needs to have a little world with Mr. Hurley about that. He might end up like the other Mr. Hurley, if he doesn’t watch out.

          There’s less clarity in the Final Eight than in the First Sixteen. Which may be partly because there’s just a lot less clarity in the time period those books were written in. Maybe less clarity in Westlake’s mind as well. Getting old. As Raylan Givens once said, it ain’t for pussies. 😐

  2. 1976 — My first year at Berkeley. I’d heard of this PG Wodehouse guy; he was supposed to be pretty funny. The undergraduate library didn’t have any of the classics (not that I would have known them if I’d seen them), but they did have three recent ones. Of those, the one that looked the most amusing was Do Butlers Burgle Banks. I wasn’t blown away, but liked it enough to read another one, No Nudes is Good Nudes. Again, not amazing, but I thought the characters were great. (It’s a Blandings Castle book, so, yes, they are.) Them I got a pass to the main library, which had literally dozens of them: Leave it to Psmith, Uncle Dynamite, Pigs Have Wings, etc. etc. Heaven.

    • That’s maybe a year or so after an English teacher read us The Veldt, one of the stories collected in The Illustrated Man–freshman year in high school? Not sure. She had the little paperback, with that cool artwork. You know the one. He’s on an alien planet, sitting on a rickety wooden platform, his back turned to us.

      I was entranced. I went up after class (never did this before, or since) and she happily loaned me the book (I had great teachers as a kid, very lucky). I devoured it, and went looking for more, and that got me started on genre lit. Thing about Bradbury is, he drops names. Every writer he ever loved, he wants you to read, so he puts them in the stories. So it was like a treasure map, and all I had to do was follow it, and each new name led me to more. Not all of them genre, obviously. But Bradbury wasn’t much into crime fiction, you see. I never went down that road, except for the obvious stuff (Holmes, Father Brown, etc).

      So what happened to me after Flashfire was really the first time since that day in class that I had a whole world open up to me that way. Westlake didn’t directly reference other writers much in his fiction, but he talked about writers he admired all the time in interviews I could read online. So it’s not like I don’t owe the book something, but then again, if it had been out that day, I’d have just read the next one in line, which is better. At any rate, I can honestly say it was all uphill from there.

      Wodehouse–I think it was Jean Shepherd who got me into him. The radio show. You remember?

      PS: You needed a pass to get into the main library? You had class segregated libraries? We never had anything like that at Fordham. And here I thought Berkeley was so free-wheeling. 😉

      • Anybody could request books from the catalog, but it was a privilege to go into the stacks and look around. Isn’t “stack pass” a common idea?

        I remember a Bob Newhart episode where Emily was taking some college courses. Howard comes over and asks where she is, and Bob explains that she’s at the library because “She got a stack pass.” Howard’s response: “Yeah, she’s really built.”

        • We didn’t have a huge library at my alma mater (either branch), and students could browse the stacks at will.

          Years later, I was attending CUNY Grad, and the same thing applied at all CUNY libraries–what’s more, I got a Metro Pass to go to non-CUNY libraries, including NYU and Columbia–no stack pass. Maybe it’s an idea that never caught on in New York, or they got rid of it by the time I was there.

          Where I work now, if you can get into the library, you can browse to your heart’s content–nobody views it as a privilege–hell, sometimes seems like half of the students don’t even know how to find a book up there. Most of the academic year, the stacks are a lonely place. Actually, not a bad spot for a rendezvous, hopefully with somebody stacked. 😉

  3. It’s an interesting thought that this might have started as a Grofield novel; it makes a lot of sense for the reasons you discussed. But it also connects these gaudy heisters with Myers from Lemons Never Lie; why does Grofield, who despises Hollywood, keep getting mixed up with crooks that want to remake It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World?

    Not that they have much in common as people. Melander and company aren’t very smart, but they seem decent enough. (They really do intend to pay Parker back with interest.)

    • I don’t know that I’d describe them as decent people, but in these books, of course, it’s all relative. 🙂

      I hasten to add you could not just stick Grofield into the existing book in place of Parker and make this work. Many other things would have to change in response to changing the protagonist. Grofield wouldn’t come after these guys because they didn’t pay him right away–that’s a Parker thing. Grofield needs to be motivated differently. And of course, Grofield’s performance as a rich twit from the oil business would be letter-perfect, so Leslie wouldn’t spot him as a ringer so easily (and yet strangely, Westlake pretty much never had Grofield combine his two professions in the four novels where he’s the main protagonist).

      Maybe it was going to be some new character we’d never seen before (Put A Lid On It isn’t that far down the road), and he just couldn’t afford to experiment at this point. Or maybe it was going to be Parker all along, in which case the experiment is testing how much nonsense Parker will put up with.

      To a certain extent, what Westlake is enjoying here is the very inaptness of Parker being in this setting, this subculture–and the extremity of his response to what is, after all, a rather commonplace professional indignity. Good bet Westlake had been shortchanged more than once in his career.

      To me, it just pushes the line too far, into the realm of satire, even parody. For Grofield, that can work. Not Parker. I think there’s even a subtextual comment in the book on this, by Parker himself–“It makes sense or it doesn’t.” It mainly doesn’t. Parker doesn’t help the story, and the story doesn’t help Parker.

      Basically, my point is that I’d enjoy this more as a Grofield. Westlake might have simply decided he’d enjoy trying to write Parker into a situation he didn’t belong in, but what his feelings were about the book after he’d completed it, I honestly don’t know. I did find this interview conducted around the time Firebreak came out, that substantiates my supposition that he would frequently begin work on a story without knowing at first who the leads would be–

      http://www.bookreporter.com/authors/donald-e-westlake/news/interview-040501

      DW: I start with the story, almost in the old campfire sense, and the story leads to both the characters, which actors should best be cast in this story, and the language. The choice of words, more than anything else, creates the feeling that the story gives off.

      There’s other interesting comments, including references to his desire to put Parker into situations that will make him uncomfortable. Obviously there must have been many instances where he knew, going in, “This is going to be a Parker,” because he was contractually obligated to write Parker novels, for several different publishers–it was Parker or nothing, for Pocket, Gold Medal, and (eventually) Random House. But by this point in his career, he had one steady publisher and a lot more freedom–not unlimited freedom, though. Mysterious Press wants to sell some books, and Parker always sells.

      But I now firmly believe he started work on the story that became Flashfire without thinking “This is a Parker.” He probably wasn’t thinking it was a Grofield either (he never really explained why he stopped writing for Grofield; maybe even he didn’t know). He was just trying to figure out who this story was about–an established character, or someone new. In the end, he decided Parker was the best fit, and of course that decision shaped the story. And in my opinion, shaped it in ways that create more problems than they solve.

      It truly bothers me that he rejected The Jugger, and not this book. But again, I can’t find any instance of him actually commenting on Flashfire at all. Can you?

  4. Not a great book but I personally don’t think it’s the worst (that one is coming up pretty soon). I just don’t buy that 1) Parker knows how to go about collecting a hundred thousand dollars in a short period of time all by himself but instead chooses to go on jobs with unpredictable companions for a smaller return and 2) that he would deposit the money he earned knowing he would never get it back, simply for revenge. At least it’s an interesting read.

    • Be sure to chime in when I get to the one you think is worst. I haven’t read any of the remaining five in a few years, so I could always change my mind, but somehow I just don’t think so. The next one has, many would say, the best opening line of any Parker novel. Flashfire definitely enjoys the distinction of having been made into the worst Parker movie ever, with the possible exception of the Slayground movie (which is awful, but at least he’s not called Parker in that one, and you can barely even call that an adaptation, since they just wanted the title, a getaway car overturning, and the amusement park).

      My best rationalization for why Parker doesn’t just do it this way all the time is that he’s a pack animal. Wolves who don’t have a pack at a given moment in their life cycles hunt by themselves quite effectively, but they can only hunt smaller prey, they have no group to call on when they need help against other predators, and it’s just part of their mental makeup to need a pack.

      Parker has that engram in his head, and solitary heisting will never be as satisfying to him. He can’t have a pack in the true sense, because a pack is a family group, and he’s a minority of one. But the handful of humans he’s met who share his affinity for this lifestyle are the closest he can get to that.

      But then sometimes they remind him they’re still just humans–like the guys in this book. That he’s all alone in the world. And then he gets very angry. And when Parker gets angry…..

      But that begs the question–did Westlake think it out this way himself? Somehow, I don’t see him reading books on lupine behavior. I mean, he was a very well-read guy, but in an upcoming book (that I love) he says parrots are colorblind. 🙂

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