Tag Archives: Hudson River

Review: Backflash, Part 3

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

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

“Go ahead.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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This one was on a Great Lake. Huge.  

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“I’ll do that,” Wycza promised.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“He was dying anyway,” Becker said.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Filed under Donald Westlake novels, Parker Novels, Richard Stark

Review: Backflash, Part 2

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

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

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

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

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

Parker said, “Noelle Braselle, Dan Wycza.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“They exist,” Parker agreed.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

She gaped at him.  “What?”

“Are those your teeth?”

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

“Do you want to keep them?”

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

“Hands behind your back.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Noelle said, “Jerry?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Filed under Donald Westlake novels, Parker Novels, Richard Stark

Review: Backflash

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Amtrak was new but the station at Rhinecliff was old, one end of it no longer in use, rusted remains of steel walkways and stairs looming upward against the sky like the ruins of an earlier civilization, which is what they were.  At the still-working end of the platform, a long metal staircase climbed to a high enclosed structure that led above the tracks over to the old station building.  The land here was steep, coming up from the river, leveling for the tracks, then continuing sharply upward.

A dozen people got off the train with Parker, and another two or three got on.  He came down to the concrete last, the only passenger without luggage, and stood on the platform while the rest of them trudged up the stairs and the train jerked forward behind him.  In his dark windbreaker and black chinos and heavy black shoes, he looked like some sort of skilled workman, freelancing, brought in by a contractor to do one specific job.  Which he was.

Encouraged by his at last being able to write in the Stark voice again, Westlake wasted no time in writing another Parker novel, which was published just about exactly a year after Comeback.  Westlake hit upon an odd little gimmick for the first five of the Final Eight–each title was composed of one two-syllable compound word, and each one after Comeback began with the second syllable of the previous title.  He sometimes had to strain a bit to justify the title in terms of the plot, but on the plus side, you always know which book comes next.  Or–do you?

Here’s the thing–I’m finding myself increasingly convinced that in chronological terms, Backflash comes before Comeback.  No question Comeback was completed first, since Westlake started working on it in 1988.  Fact is, dating either book in terms of Parker’s timeline would be enough to give even the redoubtable D. Kingsley Hahn conniption fits.  Not because there’s no evidence of when they take place, but rather because there’s a superfluity of conflicting evidence.

Comeback would seem to be taking place in the late 80’s, right after a series of prominent televangelists got themselves into trouble with their shameless shenanigans.  That tracks with when Westlake first conceived it.  But he conceived Backflash in the mid/late 90’s, and its premise certainly tracks with that as well.

Backflash is taking place in a sort of parallel universe version of New York State, where Riverboat Casino Gambling was 1)a political inevitability and 2)involved the floating Monte Carlos actually going out on river jaunts, instead of just sitting at the dock, accumulating cash from the pockets of people with too much spare time and not enough sense.  Where’s the romance in that, pray tell?  A much less interesting challenge for Parker.

Westlake would have read articles like this 1994 op-ed, from a proponent of riverboat gambling in New York, and it would have gotten his mind moving.  But in fact, there was massive political opposition to this from the get-go, and to this day, the Empire State has no such nautical gaming houses, though gaming it has, in abundance.

Westlake lived to see Yonkers Raceway, just over the Bronx Border, turn into Empire City Casino. (I gambled there myself once, but strictly on the ponies, and I won!–all of five bucks.  How was I to know I was betting on the favorite, he just looked really good in the warm-up lap.  Okay, I suppose there probably were ways I could have checked that.)  There’s casino gambling at the Saratoga racetrack as well, the reasoning being that this way you get the tax revenue from gambling and you keep the racing industry afloat.

One reason given in the book for the eagerness to institute riverboat gambling on the Hudson is the success of Foxwoods Casino Resort in Connecticut.  That actually started on the Pequot reservation as a bingo hall in 1986, and it’s a long complicated litigious story you can read about elsewhere, but nobody in Albany was paying that much attention until about a decade or so later, by which time Foxwoods was the east coast gambling addict’s Disneyland.  Most of New York’s casinos today are likewise on land controlled by local tribes, something Westlake would touch upon in the next Dortmunder novel.

So that should, by all logic, make a shambles of my theory that Backflash came first.  Except for several things I will now annoyingly bring up, since I never admit I’m wrong if I can possibly help it.

See, if we can say that this is a parallel timeline, where the success of a land-based casino somehow means New York had to have water-based casinos (when in fact they decided to go the same way as Connecticut, give the Indians a break for once, and the ponies too, for that matter), then we can just as easily say that Foxwoods graduated from bingo parlor to full-fledged casino in a much shorter span of time, perhaps started up at a much earlier date, and faced fewer legal challenges.  Maybe it’s actually  the early/mid 80’s when all this is happening.  But can I point to any other evidence this is the case? In fact I can, and the corpus is most delectable indeed.

This book marks the return of the poetically named Noelle Kay Braselle, the hippie chick heister from Plunder Squad (who turns out to hail from a much older and more pragmatic subcultural milieu than Haight-Ashbury).  After Noelle and her boyfriend are apprehended in that book, we see the other members of the string watching a news story about the arrests, which mentions that she’s 21 years old.  That information comes from the police, who have been checking her vital statistics.  No reason to doubt it.

But in this book, while her exact age is never disclosed, we have it from multiple POV’s that she looks just around 30, give or take.  Could be a bit older, or a bit younger, but essentially ten years have elapsed for Ms. Braselle since last we saw her in Plunder Squad, and she was arrested in June of 1971, according to D. Kingley Hahn’s persuasive arguments.

And furthermore, if this book is happening in the late 90’s, say 1997, the year before its publication, Amtrak is over a quarter century old (having been founded the same year Noelle got busted), and hardly qualifies as ‘new.’  Please note the opening line of that quote up top.  The description of the station tracks nicely with how it would have looked in the early/mid 80’s, but that decaying ironwork Stark refers to would have been removed by the late 90’s–see any sign of it in that photo I nabbed from the Wikipedia article for the Rhinecliff Station?

So what do we have here?  Intentionally mixed signals.  Westlake wants us to not quite be sure when this is all happening–time is well and truly out of joint.  He’s not writing a period piece, because he doesn’t do that, and certainly not when he’s in Stark mode.  But he’s not writing 100% in the present, because it doesn’t suit his purposes here.  He wants this to be the past and the present, simultaneously. In these Stark novels he wrote in the 90’s, time is a river that flows both ways–like the Mahicantuck,  AKA the Hudson.  These people are out of an earlier time, and they bring some of its archaisms with them–they drag us backwards, and the story takes place in some historical nether-realm

The stories of both Comeback and Backflash were inspired by events that occurred around the time they were written.  But neither is strictly rooted in those times (or shows any evidence of the advanced communications technology increasingly prevalent in those times, which would be pretty damned relevant to the stories being told, particularly in the latter instance).

And none of this proves Backflash happened before Comeback, but I still think it did. Partly because it helps fill in that yawning vacuum between Butcher’s Moon and the new books. Partly because of the sums of money involved here, and inflation.  Partly because it has all these familiar faces from the books of the 60’s and 70’s, and sure, maybe they all came through that time warp I was theorizing about the other day, along with Parker.  And maybe they haven’t aged normally because that’s a convention of series fiction, and I’m just obsessing over minutiae, as is my wont.

But then again, maybe the reason we never see them again in the six subsequent novels (when we see the Mackeys over and over) is that they’re still back in the past–in the 80’s (or in prison, or retired, or dead).  Parker never seems to think about any of them again afterwards other than Noelle (in Firebreak).  If he had all these ultracompetent fully reliable pros to call upon, would he really be working with the guys we see him with over the remaining six novels?

Backflash to me is a transitional story, between the old and new eras of Parker–but since it was written after Comeback, and since Westlake would be almost constitutionally incapable of referring to anything he ever wrote as a prequel, it can only be one on a conjectural, damn near subtextual level.

Although, it suddenly occurs to me–Backflash?  Transpose the two syllables in that compound word, and what do you get?  In The Hunter, Parker scornfully remarks  “I hope you people have fun with your words.”  Nobody ever had more fun with them than Donald E. Westlake.  And perversely, when we miss the joke, he may sometimes enjoy it all the more.

Anyway, it’s something we can have fun arguing about in the comments section.  After I do a bit of synopsizing.  If you were betting this would be a multi-part review, you were definitely on the money.  Hands off the table, ladies and gentleman, around and around she goes….

We come in, once more, at the tail-end of a job that has gone less than smoothly for Parker.  He and a few fellow pros have just pulled a job reminiscent of the one he pulled with Mal Resnick in The Hunter.  Some rogue soldiers were selling stolen high-tech weaponry to the highest bidder, in this case terrorists.  Parker’s string wants the weapons to sell and the cash to spend.  They got all of the first, and some of the second, but they weren’t the only ones who knew about the exchange, and the cops who busted up the party are disinclined to view Parker’s little company of freebooters as a freelance counter-terrorism squad.

As Parker flees the scene with a guy named Marshall Howell, who brought him into this operation, their car goes off the road, and rolls down a hill.  Parker is mainly undamaged, but Howell is busted up pretty bad, and trapped in the car.  The pursuing lawmen opted to pursue the truck with the military hardware for now, but somebody will be checking up on them soon.  Parker has to go, and he dislikes loose ends.  Does Howell need to die?

Howell knows he’s going to jail, and he assures Parker he’d never talk to the law.  Parker is conflicted–a fellow professional has certain rights when you’re on a job with him.  All of which come second to Parker’s right to avoid capture or death himself.  Howell talks to him just the right way, joking, congenial, quietly tough.  It’s a close call, but don’t make murder the answer to everything.  He tells Howell he’ll see him in twenty years.  Howell says he’ll be rested.  Parker gets away with 140k.  His remaining partners can sell the weapons for their share.

And that really should be it for a while, since Parker doesn’t like to work too often, and that’s more than enough cash to tide him and Claire over awhile.  He gets back to the house in New Jersey, and Claire, who is happy to see him and the money.  The paper says Howell died from his injuries–Parker knows he wasn’t that badly hurt.  He wouldn’t have died unless somebody leaned on him hard to identify his associates, and obviously he didn’t talk, since the cops haven’t come knocking.  Chalk one up for honor among thieves.  And knowing she came that close to losing her man puts Claire as much in the mood as Parker always is after a job is done.  All brushes with death do for Parker is make him wax existential.

Claire pointed at the newspaper.  “That could have been you.”

“It always could,” he said.  “So far, it isn’t.  I go away, and I come back.”

She looked at him.  “Every time?”

“Except the last time,” he said.

She put her arms around him, touched her lips to the spot where the pulse beat in his throat.  “Later,” she said, “let’s have a fire.”

So afterwards, he goes to stash the money in several empty vacation homes nearby, and comes back to find that somebody claiming to be Howell left a message for him.  The area code is for Albany.  Since he’s pretty sure that’s not where people go when they die, he’s not surprised to find himself talking to someone else–someone who has information about him he doesn’t like just anyone to have.  Somebody named Cathman, who wants to meet with him–he was going to work with Howell on something, and now that Howell is permanently unavailable, he needs somebody in the same line of work.

They meet at the Amtrak station in Rhinecliff.  Parker is once again weighing the option of discretionary murder, but as we’ve seen before (The Jugger, for example), he doesn’t like to close a case that way when he doesn’t have all the information.  How much does this guy know, and what is he really after?  You don’t want to pull the trigger before you know all the potential consequences.  So he’ll talk to the guy.

His name is Hilliard Cathman.  Short, fat, balding. Spent most of his life as a consultant for the state government, now semi-retired, doing freelance consulting.  And increasingly ignored, on a subject he has very strong feelings about, namely state-sanctioned gambling.  Parker is pretty much indifferent to the social effects of gambling, generally agrees people would be better off without it, but since when do people only like what’s good for them?

“My question was, do you gamble?”

“No.”

“May I ask why not?”

What did this have to do with anything?  But Parker had learned, over the years, that when somebody wants to tell you his story, you have to let him tell it his own way.  Try to push him along, speed it up, you’ll just confuse him and slow him down.

So the question is, why not gamble?  Parker’d never thought about it, he just knew it was pointless and uninteresting.  He said, “Turn myself over to random events?  Why?  The point is to try to control events, and they’ll still get away from you anyway.  Why make things worse?  Jump out a window, see if a mattress truck goes by.  Why?  Only if the room’s on fire.”

Cathman loves this answer, though subsequent events will reveal he’s gambling with much higher stakes than any state-sanctioned casino would allow.

(Sidebar: Regarding Parker’s avowed dislike for gambling, I am tempted to bring up his frequent visits to a casino in San Juan with Claire in The Green Eagle Score, and before that with Crystal in The Handle, though to be sure the latter was strictly to case the joint, and the former just because it got Claire in that mood he likes so much.  But he is in fact playing cards for money with some fellow heisters in Nobody Runs Forever.  I suppose you could say that was just to be social.  Westlake famously loved that kind of socializing, and at least in a private game you only have to beat your fellow players.)

So the upshot is that Cathman wants to be the finger on a riverboat casino heist.  Albany has okayed a four month trial run, with one boat–formerly the Spirit of Biloxi, now the Spirit of the Hudson. They didn’t have to change the name much. They can easily change it back again, if things don’t work out, but Cathman is sure the boat will bring in a lot of money–enough to make it worth Parker’s while. He’s in a position to give Parker all kinds of useful information about that boat.  He says he only wants ten percent of the take.

Ten percent is about what the finger would normally get (if he gets anything), but Parker feels like that’s not nearly enough money to make a guy turn his back on everything he ever was.  He smells something rotten in the air, but he doesn’t know what it is.  As we’ve seen before, when Parker is confused like this, he is compelled to seek answers.

He doesn’t need to work now, and the easiest thing to do would be to just get rid of somebody who already knows too much about him (that he knows the phone number of the house in New Jersey is itself enough reason to kill him).  But first he needs to understand Cathman, his plan, his motives, before he can know what to do about him.  And it is a potentially good score.  He asks Claire if she’ll do some background research on Cathman, which she agrees to happily (she was worried for a moment she’d be dragged into a hit).  And there’s guys he can call, so he calls them.  Might as well get things lined up.

They’re good guys.  Mike Carlow and Dan Wycza.  They meet up with Parker in Denver.  Seems like Parker hasn’t seen either of them since they took out the Tyler mob in Butcher’s Moon  (they definitely haven’t seen each other since then).  Wycza says it’s been a long time when he meets Carlow (care to specify how long, Dan?). Mike totaled another race car, needs a stake to build a new one.  The hulking muscular Dan just wants to take a break from his pro-wrestling career, stop pretending to get beat up by bleached blondes with big hair and capes (yeah, definitely the Ric Flair era, but that doesn’t narrow things down much, does it?).  Dan himself is a blonde, but given his size, I doubt anyone ever brings that nitpick up with him.

Dan is excited at the possibility of robbing the erstwhile Spirit of Biloxi–he lost some money on that tub.  He says he automatically cased it when he was there, just a professional habit.  Security’s fairly tight, lots of guards, metal detector, bag searches.  The three of them bat around ideas on how to take it, and keep running into roadblocks. For example, how do you get the guns aboard?  How do you get the cash off?  How do you get yourself off?  Parker still doesn’t like boats much–to him, a boat is a prison cell in the middle of the water, where you can be seen for miles.

Parker finally hits on an idea that would involve Lou Sternberg, who we met in Plunder Squad.  He’s just the right type to play a surly anti-gambling state politician.  Parker and Dan can play his bodyguards.  The show is shaping up nicely (No way Grofield wouldn’t be in on this if he were available, so something definitely happened there).  Just have to round out the cast a little.  Maybe an ingenue?

And a river rat.  Parker needs somebody who knows the Hudson between Albany and Poughkeepsie, the route the boat takes every night.  Somebody with his own boat, who isn’t too picky about the jobs he takes.  He gets pointed to an ex-con named Hanzen, in his sixties, a born loser, rueful but resigned with regards to his lot in life (too bad for him this isn’t a Dortmunder novel).

He lives in a town that suits him to a T, and as Parker looks around for him, we get a bit of Stark history.  To some extent, all of New York State is Westlake country, and under any name, he’s never on surer footing when he’s describing it to us, in all its many-splendored grandeur, if you want to call it that.

He was in Hudson today, a town along the river of the same name, another twenty miles north and upstream from Rhinecliff, where he’d met Cathman at the railroad station.  The town stretched up a long gradual slope from the river, with long parallel streets lined like stripes up the hill.  At the bottom was a slum where there used to be a port, back in the nineteenth century, when the whalers came this far up the Hudson with their catch to the plants beside the river where the whale oil and blubber and other sellable materials were carved and boiled and beaten out of the cadavers, to be shipped to the rest of America along the Erie Canal and the Great Lakes and the midwest rivers.

The whalers and the whale industry and the commercial uses of the waterways were long gone, but the town was still here.  It had become poor, and still was.  At one point, early in the twentieth century, it was for a while the whorehouse capital of the northeast, and less poor, until a killjoy state government stepped in to make it virtuous and poor again.  Now it was a drug distribution hub, out of New York City via road or railroad, and for the legitimate world it was an antiques center.

(And perhaps Westlake lived long enough to see the beginning of the next chapter, when Hudson was revitalized by an influx of gay people who discovered it while looking for antiques.  I doubt he’d have been surprised, since we’re told in Backflash that “Being poor for so long, Hudson hadn’t seen much modernization, and so, without trying, had become quaint.”  In 2005, Hudson’s more affluent new residents (of all sexualities) successfully opposed the building of a cement factory there that would have employed a lot of poor people.  Still a fairly large prison facility there, though.  And so the long historical parade of ironies continues in Hudson, except on Gay Pride Day, when there’s a much more enjoyable parade.)

Parker finds Hanzen outside a bar called the Lido, the one paragraph description of which makes me wonder yet again why the hell Westlake never won a Pulitzer (read it yourself, if I put all the good stuff in here, the review would be longer than the book and the estate would be on me like a ton of bricks).   Oh right, it’s crime fiction, I forgot. Not to be taken seriously.  Not like an 80’s novel about the Depression set in Albany (not exclusively Westlake country), mainly centered around a guilty good-natured alcoholic bum on the skids (isn’t that David Goodis country?) with a terse compound word title, that does in fact have a lot of crime and violence in it, and maybe I’ll never understand the rules of the Pulitzer game, but Westlake would be glad they gave an Irishman a break.

To me, this section of the book is more about setting the scene than the action, so let me sum the action up briefly–Hanzen takes Parker to his boat, shows him around the river, they talk in guarded terms about the job. Hanzen says he’d be happy to come pick them up after they do whatever they might be doing there which is absolutely none of his business, but he’s not doing any James Bond rescues, let’s understand that right now.  Parker says he never expects any James Bond rescues, which is kind of funny given what happened the last time he robbed a casino, but never mind.  Hanzen is revealed to be a part-time pot-farmer, growing his product in bags of peat moss cunningly concealed at the river’s edge, and only accessible by boat.  He is also revealed to have some rather disreputable associates who ride Harleys,  cultivate beards and beerguts.  They give Parker the fisheye, and Parker has to tell one of them to move his bike if he doesn’t want to get run over. He moves his bike.

I don’t know this particular stretch of the river terribly well, but I know the Hudson intimately (swimming in something certainly qualifies as intimacy), and love her immoderately, but not blindly.  Pete Seeger wasn’t kidding when he called her a dirty stream.  I walk along certain desolate sections of her with my dog sometimes, stretches of urban shoreline still waiting for the Parks Department to ‘improve’ them, and you just never know what’s going to crop up.  Jury-rigged docks nailed together out of found wood, the corpse of a ten foot sturgeon killed by a boat propeller, flotsam and jetsam from passing ships, all manner of wildlife (not all of it human), and while I personally have never found a dead body, I know people who have.  It’s not uncommon.  At all.  (Oh, and a humpback whale swam under the George Washington Bridge the other day, but I missed it.)

Claire’s research has resolved one mystery about Cathman–his roots are in New England, and a lot of his ancestors were ministers and such.  The old Puritan strain.  That’s why he’s got a bee in  his bonnet about gambling.  There are a lot of very good logical arguments he can employ against it, but Parker knows when it comes to people, emotions are what motivate, not logic.  Emotions and money, and money is winning out where the gambling issue is concerned.  Not enough people in New York with uptight clergymen in their family trees.

Cathman’s consulting business is a polite pretense at continued relevance; he’s getting very little work–just paying his loyal longtime secretary and renting his nicely appointed office with a view of the capital building probably eats up all he makes and more.  Another relic of the past, hanging on for dear life in a tenuous present (you do meet a lot of them in Richard Stark novels).

Stark knows what Cathman’s office looks like because Parker goes there, uninvited, and Cathman isn’t happy about this, but when you entice a wolf with fresh meat, don’t be surprised when he shows up at your door.  Parker wants to goad Cathman, test him, see if he can get at the truth about his motives–but he also needs some information–wants to get the name of a New York politician, not too well-known, who is short, stout, and surly.  Somebody who answers to the same general description as Lou Sternberg.  Cathman has a brief attack of conscience here–he doesn’t want anyone hurt (and yet he is instigating an armed robbery of a crowded pleasure boat).  But he coughs up the name.  Morton Kotkind, an assemblyman from Brooklyn.

Parker meets up with Wycza and Carlow again, this time at a restaurant just above Yonkers, with a nice view of the New Jersey Palisades.  He’s using the Edward Lynch name again.  We don’t find out what names Dan and Mike are using, but under any name, they’re up for a good score.  Lou Sternberg is in, that makes four.  Parker says they need a fifth–a woman.  First time in the series he’s set out to recruit a female heister, but this isn’t your usual smash and grab operation.  They need somebody to play a specific role.  She has to be pretty, appealing, but also she has to be of slight build–somebody who can do Mimi from La Boheme to perfection.  Somebody who looks frail–but isn’t.

It’s actually Mike who brings up Noelle Braselle–he worked a job once with her and her old boyfriend, Tommy Carpenter.  Parker didn’t think of her because he thought she was still working with Tommy, and that would make it a six-way split–hey, things are getting liberated here! Brenda Mackey didn’t get her own share of the take in the last book, and she worked harder than anyone.  Well, I guess that’s because she wasn’t actually there for the heist, just before and after, or maybe there’s some heister rule that married couples are a package deal, but free love is more expensive.  Maybe we don’t need to talk about whether armed robbery is an equal opportunity employer.  (The next cabinet sure won’t be.)

Mike knows something Parker doesn’t–Noelle and Tommy split up.  After they got picked up by the state troopers in Plunder Squad, Tommy got seriously spooked, gave up the racket for good, split to the Caribbean–scared straight.  This actually tracks pretty well with what we saw of Tommy in that book–Tommy mocked those two troopers they had to put on ice during the job, and one of them quietly promised him that they’d have him singing a different tune when they got him, and they did.  He had lots of nerve, but the thing about people with nerve is that they’re nervous.  Once they break, they stay broken.  He never wants to see another State Trooper again in his life.

Noelle has something better than nerve–she’s got class.  Dan isn’t sure if he knows her, and Mike says if he’d ever once met her, he’d remember.  Parker remembers her very well–the one that didn’t crack when the law got her–very sexy, very good at role-playing, very cool under pressure–she’d be perfect.  They have their ingenue.  The play is cast.  Time to get it on the road, work out the kinks (such a pity Grofield wasn’t in on this one).

The job is real to him now–he has the scent of the prey in his nostrils.  There’s definitely something screwy about Cathman, but he can deal with that when it comes (he’s already pretty much assuming he’ll have to kill the guy).  This isn’t about sizing up a potential threat anymore, and it’s clearly not just about the money, since he’s got plenty for now.  It’s about the hunt.  The one thing Parker can’t live without.  And just to prove that it’s fated to happen, this is the very moment their quarry chooses to make its entrance to the happy hunting ground.

Wycza said, “I smell my money.”

They looked at him, and he was gazing out the window, and when they turned that way the ship was just sliding into view from the left.  On the gleaming blue-gray water, among the few sailboats, against the dark gray drapery of the Palisades, it looked like any small cruise ship, white and sparkly, a big oval wedding cake, except in the wrong setting.  It should be in the Caribbean, with Tommy Carpenter, not steaming up the Hudson River beside gray stone cliffs, north out of New York City.

“I can’t read the name,” Carlow said.  “You suppose they changed it already?  Spirit of the Hudson?”

“They changed that name,” Wycza assured him, “half an hour out of Biloxi.”

Parker looked at the ship, out in the center channel.  A big shiny white empty box, going upriver to be filled with money.  For the first time, he was absolutely sure they were going to do it.  Seeing it out there, big and slow and unaware, he knew it belonged to him.  He could almost walk over to it, on the water.

Well, sure.  All it takes to walk on water is faith.  But just to be on the safe side, they’re going to need that river rat and his boat.  And of course there’s going to be a few unforeseen complications, people butting in where they aren’t wanted, amateurs screwing the pooch, and Parker will have to improvise a blue streak when his perfect plan breaks down.  I mentioned this is a Richard Stark novel, right?

Now all I have to do now is deal with the remaining three parts of the book in Part 2, but it worked okay last time.  I sort of assumed this book was longer than Comeback, but in fact I have Mysterious Press editions of both novels (paperback for Backflash), and both come to exactly 292 pages.  But this one is very different, much more detail packed into every page, because it’s set in a very real world that Westlake knows, and loves, and laments.  All at the same time. Whether that time is the early 80’s or the late 90’s.  Or both.  On the river that flows both ways, all things are possible.

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