Review: Firebreak, Part 3

“I get it,” Parker said.  “That’s your firebreak again.  Now they’re gonna move the stuff.”

“But they don’t get a chance,” Wiss told him.  “Right after Griffith gets there the place fills up with ATF, maybe thirty, forty of them, you’d think they’re after terrorists.”

“But they’re not.”

“When Larry told us, we said, what are they doing there, and he said, ‘They’re looking for our paintings.'”  Wiss laughed.  “Is that a pisser?  They’re looking for our paintings.  Larry’s gonna be okay, Parker.”

That didn’t matter, not now.  “But there isn’t a job any more,” Parker said, meaning, if the job did still exist, they’d have to think very hard, should Lloyd still exist.

“We don’t know yet,” Wiss said.  “The general feeling is, let’s stick around, see what happens next.”

“Until when?”

“Until the dust settles.” Wiss shrugged.  “Who knows, maybe they’ll truck the pictures outa there, we can  hijack them on the road, we’re the only ones know what and where they are.”

“Possible,” Parker said.

“At this point,” Wiss said, “everything’s possible.  Listen, I forgot to ask.  Did you deal with that problem?”

“Yes,” Parker said.

The most interesting stories in this one aren’t about the heist itself, not directly.   That’s not so unusual for a Parker novel, but it’s a bit out of the ordinary that there are so many distinct storylines apart from the heist that are so much more interesting than the heist, which doesn’t go off as planned, but we’re all used to that by now.

There’s the attempted hit on Parker at the very start of the story, that forces him to turn detective again, leading him to the mobbed up Cosmopolitan Beverages. Another run-in between Parker and organized crime that goes no better for the mobsters than any of the previous encounters, and sets up potential stories for future books.

This leads him in turn to a final showdown with Paul Brock and Matt Rosenstein, that cuts off the last dangling plot thread from The Sour Lemon Score.  The other dangling plot thread was named Uhl, and that concluded in Plunder Squad, also centered around an art heist, albeit much more contemporary stuff.  Parker walked away empty-handed from both of those jobs.  Third time lucky?

Just as important, and stretching across all four parts of the novel, is the arc of Larry Lloyd, disgraced techie turned heister, now the protégé of longtime Parker associate, Ralph Wiss.  Larry is as good as hacking into computer systems as Ralph is at blasting into bank vaults.  But the question remains–is he tough enough for this line of work?

And if the answer is no, Parker’s quite certainly going to kill him–not out of vengeance for Larry having accidentally exposed Parker to the hit, compromised his home base in New Jersey.  No, simply because he knows too much about Parker, he’s too emotional, too inclined to act on impulse, too likely to crack under pressure, spill what he knows.  If Parker has no faith in Larry’s ability to adapt to his new life, avoid the law–which wants him for murdering his former partner now–then Parker’s going to make sure Larry’s in no position to talk to anybody, ever.

And where is this coming from?  Westlake’s own run-in with the law, so many years before.  He and a guy he knew from college, needing a bit of extra pocket money, conspired to steal microscopes from a science lab, and sell them to some minor local crook, who then got into a fight with his unfaithful wife, then went after her boyfriend, which brought in the law.  He ended up selling both Westlake and his buddy to the state police.

Westlake broke easily under pressure, admitted to everything–which was the right thing to do, the smart thing.  He knew that.  And I doubt he ever stopped despising himself for doing it.  While trying, in his fiction, to relive that moment, to look for ways that authority could be successfully resisted, suborned, evaded, outmaneuvered.  Because there would be times in life when that would be the right thing to do, the smart thing.  If you were living a different life.  If you were a different person.  Or if authority wasn’t really looking out for decent law-abiding folk, which has been known to happen.

Larry Lloyd doesn’t have a path back to a decent law-abiding life anymore.  He knows that now.  He can only move forward, become the 21st century version of Ralph Wiss, take his chances out in the wind.  If he can prove to Parker–and to Stark–that he can make this new identity work for him, he lives.  If not, he dies.  And that’s enough prologue for a Part 3, I think.  This shouldn’t take long.

Dealing with the middle of this book last time, and mainly focused on the non-heist stuff, I opted to skip over some fairly significant moments involving Ralph Wiss and Frank Elkins.  Who are having their troubles.  Both of them are family men, leading outwardly respectable lower middle class suburban lives, as they have been doing for many years now.  While supporting their families through an assortment of burglaries and armed robberies.  They always work together, an inseparable team, but their partnership is in danger of going off the rails now.

It was their attempt to burglarize Paxton Marino’s remote luxurious hunting lodge that got them in trouble.  Elkins spotted an incongruity in the floor plan of Marino’s basement–Wiss was able to find and break into Marino’s hidden gallery of stolen art masterpieces.  But before they could make off with the goods, the law came running, alerted by a secret alarm they’d tripped.  They got away, their two partners, Corbett and Dolan got nabbed.

They lawyered up, and are currently out on bail, but there’s no chance of them escaping prison–they’d get significantly less time if they finked on Wiss and Elkins.  They also have families, but they’re willing to go on the lam–if they get enough money to make that feasible.  Meaning Wiss and Elkins have to go back and get that art that if they had left it alone to begin with, Corbett and Dolan wouldn’t be looking at hard time.

And, as has been already explained, that’s going to be much harder now, because the previous robbery made Marino beef up his security, and because Marino is now looking to move his stolen paintings out of there, and because the law has been alerted to the fact that Marino has stolen paintings.  And because those two ex-partners of theirs are starting to breathe heavy down their necks–Dolan actually violated the terms of his parole to show up at a softball game Elkins was playing in.  Softball is the very last game these guys intend to play.  Do the heist.  Now.

And just to make things even more complicated, Larry Lloyd is now every bit as gung ho for doing the job, because as Parker finds out during a layover in Chicago, Larry’s wanted for murder, and he needs the money to create a new identity for himself.  Basically, the only one who doesn’t have to do this job is Parker–except that he knows these other guys have to do it, and they all know stuff about him, and suppose they end up trading him to the law for less time behind bars?   And anyway, this is what he does.  Steal stuff.  Once he’s started a job, he likes to finish it.

So the four of them set up at a motel near the lodge, as hunters, which is what they are, just not in the usual sense.  The law has displaced Marino’s security staff from their usual headquarters, and this being a sparsely populated area, it’s not too much of a coincidence that they are now living at the same motel.  The gang chats them up, buys them drinks, and gets plenty of useful information about the lodge.

The plan is that Larry Lloyd never gets near the lodge–he’s their eyes and ears, snooping on email conversations between various concerned parties; Marino & Co., as well as the various government officials now trying to nail Marino & Co. (You know, I’d hate to think some nerd could actually do all this, with a portable device, while operating out of a Montana motel, which I assume has lousy internet connectivity, but then again, I have been reading the news lately, so it’s kind of hard to rule anything out these days, isn’t it?)

The bad news is that the law has gotten involved in advance of the actual robbery.  The good news is that for the time being, there’s only two cops there–Bert Hayes, who works for a tiny and possibly fictitious art theft department of the Secret Service, and a Montana State CID man named Moxon, who, like Hayes, has taken a strong dislike to Paxton Marino, and would dearly love to see him behind bars.  They are in constant communication with ‘Sog’ which Parker is informed stands for ‘Seat of government’ and words cannot express how much he does not care.

So decked out like hunters with rifles and blaze orange jackets, with Larry monitoring them through one of those com links involving tiny earphones and mikes that I suspect work a lot better in fiction than in real life,  Parker, Wiss, and Elkins start closing in on the lodge. It’s actually a few days before the start of hunting season.  Like real hunters never jump the gun?

And speaking of people jumping the gun, who should turn up but Bob Dolan–Corbett isn’t far off.  Turns out their parole got revoked the day before, and they had to run for it.  They’re just here making sure they get their share of the proceeds.  The question remains open as to how large a share they figure that’s going to be.

Moxon sees the hunting party approaching, and starts issuing warnings via a loudspeaker.  Elkins talks his way in close enough to pull a gun on him, and before long, both lawmen are in heister custody.  Larry took control of communications to and from the house, so any pleas for help were never received. They surrender graciously.  Figuring these are the same pros who did the first robbery, they are reasonably hopeful they’ll still be alive when this ends–and in the meantime, would the crooks mind terribly showing the cops where the hidden art vault is?  It’s been really hard to find, and they could use some expert help.

It all starts going sour quicker than anticipated.  The damned telecommunications revolution.  People now expect to be in touch with other people at any time, all the time, for any reason, or none at all. Remember when you could be incommunicado for days on end without anybody noticing?  If not, my sympathies.  Yes, Larry can intercept and block calls and emails to and from the estate.  Yes, he can come up with a series of excuses as to why Hayes and Moxon can’t be reached.  They can even have Hayes get on the phone, at gunpoint, to talk to an FBI guy.  Who has some bad news–for the heisters.

The crooked art dealer, Griffith, has flipped on Marino, who is now in custody in Italy.  Since there is now zero doubt that there is priceless stolen art stashed at the lodge, a whole lot of law is now going to be showing up, very soon.  Three hours, max.  Not enough time to break into the stainless steel vault in the basement, and make off with the art.  Larry’s com has suddenly gone dead, which they presume means Mr. Lloyd has run out on them.  “Well, he’s right,” says Wiss.  “I know he is,” says Parker.  (As it happens, they’re both wrong, about Larry, but we’ll get to that.)

Okay, so the job has fallen through completely.  It’s happened before.  Time to leave.  Except they can’t.  Because here’s Bob Dolan, pointing a Colt automatic at Elkins’ head, and telling them that his partner Corbett is upstairs, guarding the entrance–no other way out of the basement. Parker and the others are armed, but Dolan has the drop on them, and even if they could take him, Corbett would hear the shot–if he doesn’t hear Dolan’s voice right afterwards, he’s going to just shoot anybody who comes up.

Here’s the deal–they’re betting that it is possible to get into that vault before the cops show up. The law is already after Corbett and Dolan, so they can never go home again.  They can’t make their getaway without a lot of money.  So far as they’re concerned, if they’re going to jail, they’d like some company.  Get busy with that drill, Wiss.

Parker quietly asks if he can take a look in a storage area–maybe there’s something in there he can use to help get the vault open.  Dolan says sure, what’s the harm, just don’t get too close.  Seems like he’s never worked with Parker.  If he had, he’d know Parker has two specialties.  One is planning heists, which hasn’t been much in demand this time.  The other is troubleshooting.  He’s the one who figures out how to fix problems that crop up during the job.  And if the problems happen to be people, he’s the enforcer who makes them go away.  You don’t let a guy with that particular skill set out of your sight, even for a second.

The storage area is full of sports equipment.  He sees a target, wonders what Marino and his friends used to shoot at it.  Not much time to look, but he senses there’s something there, and he finds it.  A beautifully made wooden composite bow, four feet long, complete with arrows.  And now we’re faced with an unexpected question, as he sizes up this seemingly unfamiliar weapon.

Had he ever shot one of these things?  If he had, he couldn’t remember it, but it wasn’t high technology.  He selected one of the arrows, which also had a nock in the back end of of the shaft, beyond the feathers, which the bowstring nestled into.  He wrapped his left hand around the bow’s grip, rested the arrow’s shaft on top of  his fist, and worked out how to hold the arrow with the fingers of his right hand.  Something like a pool cue grip seemed right, between the feathers and the nock.

When he tried drawing the bowstring back, it was surprisingly taut.  If he managed to let the thing go in the proper way, it would move with a hell of a force, but he could see how easy it would be to flub it, and have the arrow dribble away across the floor, asking a bullet to come rushing back.

There was no way to do practice shots.  But there was nothing else to do either, except be gunned down either by Bob’s friend Harry or by the law.

Parker moved up to the wall just to the left of the doorway.  If he moved forward, he would see Bob diagonally across the room, seated on the sixth step, leaning back against the seventh step and the side wall, half-turned towards Parker, Colt in lap, eyes on Wiss and Elkins.

Parker inhaled, and held it.  He drew the string back to his ear, left arm out straight as he held the bow.  He stepped into the doorway, aimed down the shaft, opened his right hand.  The arrow streaked across the space like an angry wasp and pinned Bob’s chest to the wall.

He’s not sure if he’s ever used a bow before?  I haven’t used one in maybe thirty years, but it’s not something you forget doing, even once.  I hit a few bullseyes in my day, but in Parker’s place I would have quite certainly 1)Missed Dolan by a mile and 2)Flashed back to archery class at summer camp as Dolan gunned me down. What do you figure the odds are Parker ever went to summer camp?  He was in the army in WWII as a very young boy, and pretty sure archery practice wasn’t part of basic training then.  He studies the weapon, figures it out, and uses it like a zen master–in a matter of moments.

Who the hell is this guy?  What names did he go by before he was Parker, and for how long?  How many lives has he lived, in how many different forms?    Not necessarily bipedal forms.  But always a hunter.  That we know.  Or perhaps he was a single drop of rain?

Stark puts just the ghost of a whisper of a hint behind this passage, as he’s done in previous books, that there is something about his protagonist that is beyond any rational accounting.  We’ve seen him throw a knife with deadly accuracy–we’ve never been told how he picked up that skill–or any other skill we’ve seen him employ.  It would have been easy enough for Parker to find a hunting knife in a hunting lodge, use that as a means of neutralizing Dolan without warning Corbett.

But Stark presents him with a different weapon–just to see what happens.  Like it isn’t obvious what will happen.   Parker will never be able to use ‘high technology’ like computers, because he’s about simple things.  Eternal things.  Perfect things.  So he’s not flying any starships across the universe divide, but he does like to wear black a lot, doesn’t he?   Back to the story.

Without speaking, Parker signals to a slack-jawed Wiss to keep the drill running, make it sound like he’s still working on the vault, keep Dolan’s partner thinking everything is fine.  Parker walks over to the gasping Bob, who is probably thinking he should have taken those stories he maybe heard about Parker in the past a bit more seriously, and squeezes the remaining life out of him with one huge gnarly hand.

Now he’s got Bob’s Colt, along with his own gun.  Now he’s got to go up and get the other one.  There’s not really any suspense at this point about whether he can do that, but after a brief exchange of fire, Harry Corbett runs like a rabbit for the car parked outside and makes his exit.  Their only means of escape is gone.

Well, there’s always the old-fashioned way.  They reverse their hunting jackets, from orange to brown, leave the two cops behind to tell a damned interesting story to their superiors, and start running down the road, figuring to get into the woods at some point, try shaking the law the same way Elkins and Wiss did last time (but without a truck this time).  Three squad cars come in fast, and they get out of sight until they’re gone.  Right now, the law is just thinking about Corbett and the Jeep Cherokee he’s driving, but very soon Moxon and Hayes will tell them about these three other guys, and then the heat will be on for real.

Another vehicle approaches–but this one is an ambulance.  Bit soon for that, no?  Parker looks more closely–it’s Lloyd.  He came for them, when he could have walked away.  What do you know about that?   Parker’s not a big fan of heroism as a general rule, but that’s not what this is.  Loyalty to his fellow thieves aside, Larry wants those paintings, needs them.  Because he needs money to do his disappearing act, but also because this is his job, and he needs closure.  He wants to go back to the house and get what they came here for.

He stole the ambulance from a nearby hospital.  It provides a limited degree of protective coloration from the law.  Larry argues they can park at the sentry house, and nobody will notice them for a bit.  Parker agrees, but with a caveat.

Parker said, “I don’t like to leave empty-handed either, but it would be worse to leave in a prison bus.  If we work something out, good.  If not, I don’t mind leaving you right here.”

Lloyd slowly nodded.  “I understand,” he said.

He really does.  So do Elkins and Wiss–mentoring only goes so far.  This is their pupil’s moment of truth.  Either he passes this test, or he’s not going anywhere–not even to prison.

Larry Lloyd is the planner now, and the troubleshooter, improvising a way to salvage something from this fiasco.  He puts on one of the uniforms for Marino’s security people–he knows enough about them to pose as one of them.  He’s cobbled together a jamming device that will keep the cops from radioing down, and he can show Parker and the others how to shut off the electricity and phone at the lodge.  He’ll drive right up in a borrowed Chevy Blazer, and take some of the paintings they’re loading on a truck.  They don’t need all of them for it to be a nice score–every single one is worth a fortune.

The others are impressed, in spite of themselves–but wondering where the hell this new Larry Lloyd came from.

Elkins said, Larry, I never knew you had yourself confused with James Bond.”

Lloyd offered a shaky grin. “Are you kidding?  The last few weeks, I’ve been scaling cliffs, shooting people, getting rid of bodies, stealing ambulances, I am James Bond.”  Earnest again, he turned back to Wiss.  “Ralph, it’s my only shot at those paintings, and without those paintings I’m dead, even if Mr. Parker here doesn’t kill me.”

Wiss blinked.  He and Elkins looked at Parker, who looked at Lloyd, whose expression was now that of a kid at the principal’s office, insisting they got the wrong guy.

Parker said, “Take your shot.”

That’s not just a figure of speech.  He’s going to be watching.  If it looks like the cops are tipping to who Larry really is, Parker’s going to be sorely tempted to try and plug him, except he doesn’t have the hunting rifle anymore.  He’s taking a big chance here.  Larry knows where he lives.  He and Claire would have to get the hell and gone from Colliver Pond, and never come back.

So, pretending to be a security man named Dave Rappleyea (the one who kept playing DoomRanger II all the time), Larry walks right up to Moxon, who is helping supervise the removal of the stolen artwork from the Marino manse.  Larry is a very convincing civilian, and before Moxon knows what’s happening, he’s jumped into the truck with the paintings, and is driving like a maniac away from there.

The other heist men follow in the ambulance, which they then turn into an improvised bomb (oxygen tanks), to block pursuit.  They know Corbett is dead, saw the cops bringing his body up to the lodge.  There’s nobody left to finger them.  They just need to find transportation and disappear

They got four crates–four paintings.  One for each of them.  Most likely they’ll deal with museums, insurance companies–eventually, these masterworks will be back where they belong–property of the world once more, instead of one self-obsessed billionaire, whose lawyers are going to be putting in a lot of overtime trying to keep him out of prison.  You know, I’d almost want to read a novel about that.  Well, a novella.  Actually, how about a nonfiction piece?

Wiss is already gone, to get a vehicle. Elkins goes to dump the Blazer.  Larry and Parker wait there for him on the back road.  Alone.  Deep in the woods.  Elkins makes a brief plea for Larry before he goes.  But it’s Parker’s call what happens now.

In this alternate reality stream we’re in, I’d kind of like to think one of the four paintings–the one Larry gets to finance his new life–is The Just Judges, seen up top–or rather, a black and white photo taken of it before it was stolen in the 1930’s.  It has yet to be recovered.  Hope springs eternal, though.

Now Larry must face his own judge, who I think we can say is just.  Some of his late colleagues might disagree.

Parker sat looking at the road, listening to the faint rustle of the woods.  It would be an hour, maybe more, before Wiss got here.  They could drop Parker at the airport in Bismarck, North Dakota, on their way home to Chicago, he’d take a plane east, call Claire.

Lloyd said, I’m too jumpy to sit.”  He walked back and forth, back and forth, looking at the road, looking with wonder at his own hands.  Finally, he stopped to face Parker and say “So you aren’t going to do it.”

“No need,” Parker said.

And if you don’t need to kill, you don’t.  Larry Lloyd proved out, after all.  He’ll be a useful member of The Profession–Parker may well work with him in the future.  Not in any of the remaining novels, but if there had been a few more, I imagine we’d have seen him once or twice.  He’s going to get a new face, via plastic surgery–well, that’s familiar, isn’t it?

Parker likes things that are familiar.  He likes patterns he can recognize.  Larry is something he can understand now.  No longer some confused frightened nerdy fish out of water, mired in unreality, lamenting a lost life.  He’s adapted to his new existence, his new reality–he prefers it.  He’s something else now.  Something better.   Well–simpler.  And Parker is all about simple things.  Eternal things.  Perfect things.  But only he can ever truly embody these things.  The rest of us will always fall short of his standard. That’s okay.  He can work with that.  He’s learned to accept us for what we are.  And we’ll never fully understand what he is.

And what I don’t understand is where the time went–and the books.  This was the first of the five final Parker novels.  And the next book in our queue is the first of the five final Dortmunder novels.  They really are in synch now, those two.  Pulling together in harness, as the finish line looms ahead.  Miles to go before Westlake sleeps.  More good books left than most authors complete in a lifetime.  That’s the good news.  But the end is in sight.  That’s the bad.

Oh, and looks like Barry ‘Spider-man’ Williams is getting eight years for art theft.  What kind of news you think that is–entirely up to you.

PS: I knew there was another cover somewhere.  My own personal gallery of stolen art is getting harder to keep track of, and foreign titles so rarely give any hint as to what book they’re for.

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(Part of Friday’s Forgotten Books.)

11 Comments

Filed under Donald Westlake novels, Parker Novels, Richard Stark

11 responses to “Review: Firebreak, Part 3

  1. I love the final line of this novel:

    “Smell the trees,” he said. “That’s a great smell.”

    It reminds me of the Zen koan about the strawberry, how sweet it tastes to the man facing death. (In Larry’s case, it’s a man who has just had the threat of death lifted.) It also sets the tone for the final lines of the remaining Parker novels, each of which lingers on a sliver of hope amidst a looming threat.

    “This time,” he said.
    He kept climbing.
    Parker wondered how far he’d get.
    Parker looked at him. “So you’ve still got tonight,” he said.*

    *My favorite closing line of any Parker book.

    • I felt like that last quote needed to end where I ended it, but very happy you picked up on what followed. There’s more in these books than most people ever realize, and even a three part review is going to leave some low-hanging fruit unplucked. Well, strawberries are low-hanging fruit, by definition.

      My favorite would be the one just before yours, for that odd equivocal note of empathy–but they’re all good. The five best closing lines of the series, I’d say.

      And you know as well as I do why that is.

      Every time but the last time.

  2. Larry, for most of the book, has no idea who he is. He thinks he’s a steady, calm guy who’s all intellect, but he’s actually a hothead with a temper that’s literally murderous. If this were an English paper and I was trying to show how the book embodies that theme, I’d say that Larry’s speech about how he’s accepted his wild side is what persuades Parker than he’s worth talking a chance on.

    • His biggest mistake in the book–creating a file with Parker’s contact info in it–belongs to the steady, calm, intellectual side of him. Or you could just say anal. But yes, he’s an unbalanced personality, still reeling from his partner’s betrayal, and all the things that must have happened to him in prison (Stark never talks about weak guys getting raped in stir, you’re just supposed to know that’s a thing). He’s got all this suppressed anger coming out, but when he finally kills Brad, that’s a turning point. He’s crossed a personal rubicon, accepted his new identity. It’s not just blindly lashing out. It’s a conscious choice. One Parker can understand. He’d be some kind of hypocrite not to understand.

      But all that really matters to Parker is that Larry prove he can do the job, and be relied on in the clutch. The most interesting dynamic to me is actually Parker taking the adversarial side, while Wiss and Elkins are on the defense. And at the end, you realize–they’re scared of Parker too. I mean, the guy just pulled a bow and arrow out of his ass and killed a guy with it. You ask him if he killed some people who were bothering him, and all he says is “Yes.” He’s very definitely the senior member of this doctoral committee. And Larry’s thesis is himself.

  3. This is such a GREAT Parker novel. For so many reasons as your analysis notes.

    Larry is something he can understand now. No longer some confused frightened nerdy fish out of water, mired in unreality, lamenting a lost life. He’s adapted to his new existence, his new reality–he prefers it. He’s something else now. Something better. Well–simpler. —————— The transformation of Larry is something to behold – in many ways, emotionally volatile computer-science nerd that he is, much more dramatic transformation into “the life” than Stan in Green Eagle.

    Gotta love the scenes with Matt and Paul. Your analysis is spot-on. And I agree – Matt is too cowardly to avoid spending his last days trapped in a wheelchair fuming at the world like some sadistic,spoiled, 15-year-old. Pathetic. I’m sure some current world leader comes to mind for both of us.

    Those scenes with Arthur are fabulous. I suspect thousands of older Stark fans could closely identify with Arthur after Parker gives him the skinny on how his former associates were going to eliminate both him and his wife.

    You’re right – I had the clear sense I was reading a 21st century tale with the internet and all the modern high tech technology taking center stage.

    • Well, there was plenty of internet in the early 90’s. Less developed, but of course we’re dealing with internet pioneers here–people who can do a lot more with a computer than most, and don’t need all the user-friendly apps. I think we can assume this takes place right around the time it was written, which is right at the turn of the century. Just before the 21st, if we figure a century doesn’t begin until there’s a 1 at the end of the number.

      Westlake’s first real foray into the digital world was in Drowned Hopes, a Dortmunder novel. He has a real geek in that one, who talks to his computer, and it talks back to him. Though well before that, he did a fairly weak novel about a starlet’s kidnapping, and that had a computer on a boat that was used to plan the snatch. Westlake was interested in the techie stuff going way back. But I doubt he was ever any kind of a techie himself. Just fascinated by the story and character possibilities created by that culture.

  4. “One of them named Dave is happily playing something called ‘DoomRanger II’ on his handheld gaming device, as he clearly intends to do for the rest of his life; we are now officially in the modern era, like it or not.”

    I think it’s hilarious that Westlake namedrops stuff like Star Trek and Spider-Man but when it came to Doom II he chose to make a knock off by just adding the word “Ranger” in the title. Especially since the first Doom was actually ported to GameBoy Advance the very same year Firebreak came out.

    (Also, considering I spend most of my free time watching films, reading books, AND playing videos game, I’m not one to judge good ol’ Dave >_>)

    Anyway, Firebreak! Long story short: This is more fucking like it.

    I’m now 100% convinced Flashfire wasn’t originally meant to be a Parker. If only because once you swipe it off the list, the quality from Comeback to this one only goes up. I’d also go far as to theorize that Firebreak set out to improve Flashfire in one certain area which I’ll get to shortly.

    The plot structure of this one is interesting. At times, it honestly feels like two separate novellas that were reconfigured into one full book. Or maybe Westlake started writing out a story about Parker trying to get rid of a hit put on him only to run out of steam and proceeded to veer off in another direction. In retrospect, Plunder Squad felt similar in spots.

    Speaking of, I absolutely agree with the opinion of Firebreak being a more focused variation on Plunder Squad. Hell, when Wiss and Elkins were going on about the paintings and the heist in general I initially thought “Oh shit, are these the same paintings Parker and co. failed to steal in Plunder Squad?” Of course, it quickly became clear that these were significantly different paintings.

    As always, the new characters were fantastic. Despite not having much screen time, both Paxton Marino and Griffith make a hell of an impression. Not to mention Frank Meany, who I have a feeling might come back later (probably wrong but a girl can guess).

    Of course, the new star on the block is Larry Lloyd, easily my favorite in this installment. For me, Lloyd is pretty much Leslie from Flashfire done right. Both characters are people who do something so amateurishly stupid that you’re immediately counting down to when Parker finally plugs them. Unlike Leslie though, Lloyd’s first scene was him establishing his usefulness to the crew, and he was already knee deep in the score to be put down right away. Another way Lloyd improves over Leslie is that he’s constantly keeping you on your toes as to whether or not he’ll live. No joke, those final few chapters were some of the most nerve wracking in the entire series because I legitimately wasn’t sure if Parker was actually gonna let him live or not, regardless of whether Lloyd succeeded in his gambit. With Leslie, I wasn’t really wondering if she’d survive (nor was I particularly concerned). And finally, Larry just had a much more compelling arc than Leslie. I mean, it’s essentially the same arc, when you get right down to it, but Larry simply sticks the landing better.

    The art heist itself was really well done. It had plenty of twists and turns, I liked the atmosphere of where they were pulling it, I couldn’t predict where it headed, and it was tensely fun ride.

    So, overall, yeah! Firebreak was a truly great return to form after the brief stumble of the last book, and I can’t wait to read Breakout!

    ….Ok, let’s fucking talk about the real stars of Firebreak.

    You know, I was initially hesitant upon reading the return of Matt Rosenstein and Paul Brock. They were were one of my favorite parts of The Sour Lemon Score (if not my absolute favorite) and I was worried their second appearance would be a unnecessary return from two characters who plain didn’t need to come back.

    I’ve rarely been happier to have been proven wrong because the subplot of Matt and Paul is probably even better than their first appearance. And it resonates like a motherfucker. Look, would I recommend this to other queer friends? Probably not, depends on the friend. Frankly, yeah, it does use some gay clichés that are overdone.

    But….goddammit, that final scene Westlake leaves them on got to me. As I mentioned in our Sour Lemon Score discussion, I was haunted by Matt Rosenstein as a dark mirror of what I could’ve possibly been. So when I read Matt accidentally stabbing Paul to death in a blind rage, too fueled by his anger to realize what he was doing….yeah, that’ll stick with me. The only real way to conclude Matt and Paul’s story if you ask me. Having Parker kill Matt would’ve absolutely killed the narrative. Did fans actually call Parker soft for not killing Matt? Because, I mean, Parker literally says “You’re not worth much” to a paralyzed Matt who killed the only one left who loved him. Westlake wasn’t exactly being subtle with what he intended here.

    I ended up thinking more highly of Paul Brock here than I did in his previous appearance. Mostly because I have a better understanding of him than my first reading, but also because this book offers more insight into his character. I also think Paul resonated more with me here because Westlake emphasized his neediness. His longing for companionship and love. That scene where he begs Pam to save Matt’s life because he loves him…Jesus. Westlake might not have been perfect, but he writes these gay men with more character, depth, and even dare I say empathy than a lot of high profile “Gay Representation” stories could dream of.

    Finally, I wasn’t bothered by Pam’s decision to let them live as I thought I would be. Mostly because it’s a logical conclusion (and sadly true to life). I’m sure you don’t need me to tell you of the countless people who had to help their abusers in order to ensure their own survival (and that of their loved ones). And yeah, she had a good pov chapter.

    Not much more to say. Just, goddamn, what a powerhouse of a subplot.

    • Parker novels with two distinct storylines can be traced all the way back to The Hunter--he’s out to kill Mal–then he’s out to get his money back from The Outfit. Parker can only fully focus on one thing at a time. But it was in The Man With the Getaway Face that we saw him focused on a job, only to be forced to deal with complications that had nothing to do with the job, tie up loose ends when he’d rather just go spend the money. So this isn’t that different. But like every other novel in the series, never quite the same. Here, Parker ties up the loose end, then does the heist. Then decides the other loose end has tied himself up just fine. It’s always a pleasant surprise for him when these humans get wise to themselves.

      Because all the stories balance each other out, I wouldn’t assume this isn’t the book he meant to write from the get-go, but when you’re talking about the Push Method, one never knows. Pretty rare for Parker to focus entirely on a job for the entire book. There’s pretty much always a B plot. Here, you could argue there’s a C and a D plot as well, but too early in the morning for me to think about that.

      In the Dortmunder novels, we’ll often see the names of real cars on the market mixed in with completely made-up car names that are parodying Detroit’s attempts at branding. This is along the same lines, but you don’t usually see that kind of humor in this series. It fits because Larry is the focal point, and his world is starting to matter in Parker’s world, much as Parker wishes that wasn’t the case.

      The problem with Leslie was that she didn’t have a skill set particularly useful to Parker, and there’s no room for the sex angle because Claire. (Obviously the movie producers disagreed, and look how well that worked for them). Not a problem that he didn’t kill her, because he did need somebody who knew the territory–never was he more of a fish out of water than on that trumped-up sandbar. And anyway, he never deliberately kills civilians–just that accidental death in the first novel. Stark takes that “don’t make murder the answer to everything” dictum just as seriously as Parker does.

      I seriously wonder how many people who first read Firebreak had read The Sour Lemon Score. Long out of print (last edition had been from a UK publisher in 1991), finding used copies was a lot harder then.

      But given that a large percentage of the readership were fans of the earlier books, and nobody who reads the earlier one will ever forget it, it was an interesting gambit. I had never heard of these guys before. It wasn’t a problem for me. It added a certain something to my appreciation of the 1969 book not long after (and didn’t really spoil anything, since so much detail is left out of the spare synopsis–Parker has clearly not spent any time wondering about what happened with these people). A really good series, you can enjoy in almost any reading order. And this is the best series.

      You can argue Westlake felt maybe the earlier characterizations of Rosenstein and Brock, effective as they were for the purposes of the story, needed some fleshing out. And that the ending of that book left too many questions unanswered, not that this usually bothers him in Stark Mode. For some reason, it did this time. The other shoe needed to drop. As it did with Uhl, in a novel that does somewhat resemble Plunder Squad.

      Pam just wasn’t a killer. Parker expected her to get even for what had been done to her and her husband, but some people aren’t built that way. She had a family to care for. Brock made that possible. They understood each other. Transactionally, anyhow. I do kind of wonder how she explained Ed’s death to the cops, not to mention the neighbors. But how hard is the investigating officer going to push when it’s a grieving widow with small children who was raped by her husband’s murderer?

      Without going into detail, the events of this novel do resonate in one of the later books. Sadly few of those left. They go fast, don’t they?

      • To respond to your question, I never saw anyone who reviewed this book say Parker was soft because he didn’t kill a man in a wheelchair. I’d guess this book largely escaped such critiques because of its now-famous opening sentence. But as we have mutually agreed, the rep the Final Eight have for making Parker more sympathetic are largely unmerited. He’s older, and calmer.

        I’d say the only novel in this latter grouping where he isn’t behaving 100% rationally (by his standards) is Flashfire–that’s partly Westlake trying to recapture the fugue state Parker goes into when he has a score to settle, and it doesn’t make sense for him to to so, but he does it anyhow–The Hunter, The Seventh, Butcher’s Moon. And as we’ve also agreed, it mainly doesn’t work in Flashfire. It’s pushing that envelope a mite too far. It feels like an older guy trying to recapture his glory days, and that definitely does not work for Parker. Maybe for whoever the book was originally going to be about. I have no idea.

        I love those three earlier books, but they’re a young man’s work. You get older, you start learning how to deal, make do with what Dame Fortuna offers. Parker is pretty much all the way there by Butcher’s Moon. But the button is still there in his head, waiting. He’ll just be a bit more measured in his reaction to someone pushing it.

        Really, that’s why Butcher’s Moon was the ideal endpoint for that part of the series. “I’ll settle.” Yeah, he’ll settle. In a McMansion full of dead mobsters. That’s a big character moment for Parker. Blink and you miss it. That’s the only way Stark does big character moments.

        • Parker doesn’t deliberately kill civilians, yes. But he does kill pests, especially ones that prove dangerous to him, like Alfred from The Jugger. I feel Leslie just didn’t upgrade from a pest into a valuable ally like Lloyd did. But at that point, I’m just being arbitrarily subjective.

          I already knew that “Parker got done softened up” accusation was nonense before I even read a single page of the final eight. Because that same accusation had already been given to the series after The Rare Coin Score.

          It’s true there’s no real evidence of my Firebreak hypothesis. However, it should be noted there is precedence for Westlake starting a book one way and going on a completely different path once he started to dislike the road he was on. Take the very next book for example: “[Parker’s] been beating the odds for far too long. Before the first book he was in jail, but he’s never been in jail since the book started. Let’s see what happens if I put him in jail. So in a book called Breakout, by the end of part one, he’s in jail, which he hated and so did I! So by the end of part two, he’s out of jail.”

          (One of my favorite anecdotes from Westlake, btw.) Yeah, I know you shouldn’t 100% trust what a writer says about their work. Still a fun anecdote, though…Ok, maybe I just wanted to share that quote from him. Can you blame me?

          • The kid in The Jugger killed a man. Someone Parker knew, if not someone he had terribly good feelings about. Killed him for no reason, in a panic, searching for something that wasn’t there. Not a promising sign for a budding pro.

            Leslie just got curious–smart enough to spot a discrepancy in Parker’s quickly but painstakingly acquired false ID. She had detailed knowledge of Palm Beach real estate that could be useful to Parker.

            The kid clearly didn’t know his arse from his elbow. He broke down and cried when Parker interrogated him, confessed everything, as he would absolutely have done if any cop had gotten wise to him first, or if he was ever caught in the future.

            Leslie stayed calm when Parker braced her. She knew she was in danger, but she was willing to risk it. She looked him right in the eyes, as Mary Deegan had, years before, and told him the truth about why she’d taken this chance. Parker went to some trouble to make sure this was someone who was strongly motivated to help him, and genuinely wanted to escape her life.

            Alfred Ricks, had Parker followed through on his promise, would have probably run back home to momma the moment things got tough, and blabbed everything to the cops. Which is what he should have done the moment he saw an elderly neighbor being tortured by a local law enforcement officer, instead of looking for some way to get the money for himself. A man Parker considered a mentor–even if he was ready to kill Joe Sheer himself if he was a possible security risk, you think about the way he reacted to Grofield’s treatment in Butcher’s Moon, you realize that this type of behavior disgusts and angers him. You are either on one side or the other. Ricks can’t choose.

            Conclusion: Ricks wasn’t a civilian. He was a weak cowardly incompetent fledgling criminal who couldn’t reconcile his greed with his guilt, and unlike (for example) Stan Devers, wasn’t a useful apprentice.

            Fair prey for Parker, as Stark sees it. The kid can only be a problem, so the kid has to go. Leslie is both problem and solution to a problem, so Parker gives her a shot, same as Larry. She proves out, in spite of some missteps, just like Larry. The book, much less so, but I don’t think she’s the real problem with it. Her subplot isn’t as well-developed as Larry’s, or as interesting, but the real issues with the book lie elsewhere.

            I believe I did see that quote, but didn’t incorporate it into my review. I used others, which I thought better explained the very strange pathways via which that book was born. See you there. 😉

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