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Review: Firebreak

When the phone rang, Parker was in the garage, killing a man.  His knees pressed down on the interloper’s back, his hands were clasped around his forehead.  He heard the phone ring, distantly, in the house, as he jerked his forearms back; heard the neck snap; heard the phone’s second ring, cut off, as Claire answered, somewhere in the house.

There’s a part of me feels like that quote I just typed, the opening paragraph of the 20th Parker novel, is all the review it could ever possibly need.  If you haven’t read it yet, which would presumably mean you don’t have a copy, what are you doing here?  Buy, borrow, download, steal.  We’ll talk later.

Over the past few years, Westlake had been adjusting to the renewed presence of Richard Stark in his writing life.  It can’t have been easy.  Stark was an exciting voice to write in, but giving that part of him free rein came with certain inherent consequences, as his wife half-humorously detailed in an article she wrote about life with Mr. Westlake and his various authorial personas.  To write as Stark, he had to become Stark, and Stark was never easy to live with.

As the new Parker series progressed, he got more confident.  Comeback and Backflash both felt a bit retro, and I remain convinced they are both set quite a few years before their respective dates of publication (and that Backflash may in fact take place some time before Comeback).

In both those books, he had Parker working with old and trusted associates from earlier novels.  Strong well-defined personalities, some of whom could have easily anchored a novel themselves.  Who wouldn’t love to read a novel about Brenda and Ed Mackey, Dan Wycza and Noelle Kay Braselle, or maybe a little escapade with Mike Carlow and Lou Sternberg?

But in Flashfire, which I am forced to deem the first truly contemporary entry in the series since Butcher’s Moon, he had Parker working with–and then against–total strangers.  No familiar faces other than Parker and Claire (there are phoned-in cameos from a few old stalwarts, but that hardly counts).  And that book, as I’ve just finished detailing, is a frustrating melange of false notes, dangling plot threads, and social commentary–the commentary is hardly a new thing for Stark, but it doesn’t feel organic to the story this time, somehow.

We know it’s set sometime in the Mid-to-Late 90’s, because of the material being covered, and because it’s the very first time the word ‘internet’ appears in a Donald Westlake novel.  At least I can’t think of any earlier instances–obviously Wally Knurr is using the internet in the Dortmunder books he appears in, but it’s never called that, and it’s clearly pre-WWW.  The internet referenced in Flashfire isn’t just for nerds anymore–even semi-literate redneck Neo-Nazi militiamen in the Everglades are using it.  But other than the fact that a curvy blonde realtor can use online databases to run a credit check on Parker, penetrate his false identity, it doesn’t really impact the story at all.

Donald Westlake was a different order of nerd.  You wouldn’t expect a man who pecks his books out on a manual typewriter–in the early 21st century–to be any kind of web wizard.  How retro can you get?  But he was never interested much in writing about the past (and it’s impossible to imagine him getting into Steampunk).  No doubt he was interested by the possibilities of the new online medium–a great new tool, but also a point of vulnerability.  Would it empower the enterprising individualist, free him/her in new and previously unimaginable ways–or absorb him/her into the machine matrix forever?  (Yeah, I’d assume he did see that movie.)  Bit of both, maybe?

Stark needed some time to catch up, as did Parker, so going retro with the first two books made sense.  So did bringing some of the other Stark characters forward through the time warp with Parker.  But if these books are going to be something other than a mere exercise in noir-stalgia  (You see what I did there?  Google it, and you’ll see how many bloggers beat me to that pun.), he’s got to bring Parker into the new era, which means Parker is going to have to deal with people who understand this new tool, who can wield it as effortlessly as he wields a Smith & Wesson Terrier.

Some will be his enemies–so just as certainly, some will have to be his allies, since Parker himself could never venture into the cyberworld–he’s too well-rooted in the real one.  But will they be allies he can rely upon?  Or will they prove unstable, off-kilter, a danger to him and everyone else they work with, as well as themselves?  The answer to that question depends on whether such a person can truly know himself.

And the thing about the internet, and all that comes with it, is that it can seriously erode one’s sense of self.  You can get lost in there, out of touch with reality.  Parker can be a good teacher when it comes to embracing the real.  But as the song lyric goes, when you become a teacher, by your pupils you’ll be taught.  Let’s start getting to know the cast of characters here.

So Parker just killed a man, with his hands, in his own garage (he thinks of it as Claire’s house, but the garage seems to be Parker’s special domain there, going by the set-up).  He spotted the guy approaching the house through the surrounding woods, with a silenced .357 Colt Trooper in hand.  He waited for the hitter to be halfway in through the garage window before he made his move.  Hard to say whether the man’s primary reaction was terror or confusion.  Who’s hitting who here?

And no sooner has he finished the intruder off than he has to take a call from Frank Elkins, who is partners with Ralph Wiss.  Parker’s known these two a very long time indeed–you might call them co-founders of the franchise.  At the end of The Hunter, Parker pulls a heist on an operation run by The Outfit, to get back the money he feels that crime syndicate owes him.

His partners in that job were Elkins, Wiss, and a guy named Wymerpaugh (who had a brief cameo in The Handle).  He’d worked with Elkins before the events of that book, and Elkins brought in Wiss, who wields a mean chisel.  In The Score, they both appear again–Wiss is needed for his expertise in safe cracking, and Elkins comes along as his sideman.  Parker marks them both as solid steady pros you can count on in the clutch, so they’re among the elite string he recruits to finish off the Tyler mob in Butcher’s MoonFirebreak would be their final appearance in the series.

Lucky charms, for Parker, and for Stark–when these two make an appearance, you know you’re in for a successful heist and a good book.  But since they only appeared briefly in The Hunter, and then in two books with a lot of other characters, they never really got much attention before now.  They’re not the most distinctive or finely drawn of Parker’s criminal cohorts, and they’re not really what this book is all about either.  But this is their one final moment in the spotlight, and they make the most of it.

This book has two distinct plots.  One is Parker planning and carrying out a heist with three other guys.  The other is Parker tracking down and dealing with whoever was responsible for the attempt on his life (that would probably have encompassed Claire’s life as well, to avoid leaving any witnesses).  And each of these two main plots has a number of sub-plots within it.

And the connection between the stories is that the hit on Parker only happened because of the heist–before he even knew about the heist.  How’d that happen?  The damn internet, that’s how.  If Parker had known in advance how much of a headache that was going to be, how much it was going to complicate his working life, he’d have taken out everybody working on it.  Well, too late now.  The humans actually came up with a stupider idea than psychoanalysis, another means of compromising themselves, making private things public–instead of telling their secrets to a doctor or a priest, now they tell them to the whole fucking planet.   Why do they always have to share?

Parker goes to a nearby gas station to talk more freely with Elkins.  You still don’t go into detail over the phone, so they arrange to meet in Lake Placid–Parker indirectly signals to Elkins that he’ll be checked in at a hotel there under the name of Viktor Charov.  The name of the man who just tried to kill him.  And you thought he had no sense of humor.  Well, it’s probably also because he’s got the guy’s ID now, and a sample of his signature he can forge on the hotel register.

So after getting rid of Charov’s car, with Charov inside of it, in a nearby abandoned stone quarry, Parker drives up to the famed Adirondack ski resort and site of two past Olympics (I’ve always preferred Saranac Lake myself, Lake Placid is kind of tacky).  He meets Elkins, Wiss, and their new associate, whose services are deemed essential to this particular job.

This new guy is a protégé of Wiss, a newly minted member of The Profession, recently paroled.  He’s supposed to be in Massachusetts; they made him wear one of those ankle monitors, and he can’t cross a state line without permission, but electronic surveillance is never going to work well for a guy like him.  He just reprogrammed the device to tell the law what it wants to hear, so he can come and meet Parker.  That’s his specialty.  He’s the uber-nerd in this story.  Well, one of them.  See if his physical description sounds at all familiar to you.

The one he knew was Elkins’ partner, Ralph Wiss, a safe and lock man, small and narrow, with sharp nose and chin.  The other one didn’t look right in this company.  Early thirties, medium build gone a bit to flab, he had a round neat head, thinning sandy hair, and a pale forgettable face except for prominent horn-rim eyeglasses.  While Parker and the other two were dressed in dark trousers and shirts and jackets, this one was in a blue button-down shirt with pens in a pen protector in the pocket, plus uncreased chinos and bulky elaborate sneakers.  Parker looked at this one, waiting for an explanation, and Elkins came past him to say, “You know Ralph.  This is Larry Lloyd.  Larry, this is Parker.”

Donald Westlake, if Donald Westlake had followed one of those innumerable sidepaths not taken along the road of his life.   He was, let’s remember, a science fiction fan, a jazz buff; he was probably into stuff like tinkering with radios and audio equipment, going by various references in his stories; he seems to have enjoyed building things.  Maybe weak in the math department, I wouldn’t know.  But a few different twists and turns, he might have been a tech nerd, instead of a word nerd.  While still the same basic personality underneath, of course.  Identity, you might say, is what you choose to do with the underlying potential you were born with.  Or not to do.

Larry Lloyd chose to go into the burgeoning field of internet apps, but for all his formidable technical prowess, he didn’t have that weird thing that guys like Steve Jobs have–he wasn’t an innovator, or a salesman.  He joined up with a partner who had that knack (and, it’s implied, less technical ability, meaning he needed someone like Larry to do the wonk work).  Just as they were about to make a fortune, after years of belt-tightening, the partner screwed him out of his share, acted like he was just an employee, and the partner’s brother-in-law, a lawyer, made sure that would stick–Larry should have read the fine print.

Larry went to the partner’s house and threw him off a balcony.  Unfortunately, he lived.  The partner didn’t only screw over Larry, and he wasn’t quite as slick as he thought, so they both ended up in jail–Larry was instrumental in that happening, since he’d had read up on game theory, knew about The Prisoner’s Dilemma–so he got out first.  Parker has no real problem with that, but makes a mental note Larry will squeal if he’s squeezed.

And once he was out, let’s just say employment opportunities in his old field of endeavor were not all that might be wished for (going to prison for attempted murder can do that to a guy).  He’d done some networking in prison, and that led him to Wiss–in a sense, Larry’s the new version of guys like Wiss–cracksmen were the old school nerds of the heisting profession, the ones who figured out how to get past locked doors, bank vaults, and alarm systems.  Security tech is changing now, and they need to recruit from the new order of nerds in order to keep up.

In what might be considered a bit of foreshadowing with regards to the resurfacing of certain other unpleasant persons featured in past books, Larry tells Parker (who is not at all sure what to think of this new recruit) that he met Otto Mainzer, the Neo-Nazi heister/arsonist/rapist, first and last seen in The Rare Coin Score, while he was inside.  He later lets it slip that Otto told him a few stories, without any names attached, that he’s now thinking might have involved Parker.  Parker is surprised to learn Otto’s still locked up–hit a guard.  Well, that part doesn’t surprise him. Otto’s the kind of guy never learns from his mistakes.  Question he’s asking himself here; is Larry that kind of guy as well?

Anyway–the job.  It’s an interesting one.  Seems Elkins and Wiss were hitting this glorified hunting lodge (if you can call a huge ostentatious McMansion full of expensive stuff a lodge) way up in Montana, near the Canadian border.  It belongs to one of those dot.com billionaires, one Paxton Marino (the kind of guy Larry’s old partner was aspiring to become).  Elkins read about it in one of those architectural magazines that have big spreads on the homes of rich famous people (you have to wonder how much of the subscriber base for those publications is made up of burglars), and he noted with pleasure that it’s got a lot of solid gold fixtures.  Bathtubs, sinks, toilets, etc.  All of this out in the middle of nowhere.  Very Trump.  You know, some people never do quite grasp the concept of roughing it.

So the original concept was very simple–disable the alarms, break in, grab everything that’s made of precious metal, bring a forklift, load it all into two trunks, get the hell out.  But since they were basically ripping out the plumbing, they needed to turn off the water, so they went down to the basement, and Elkins noticed something a little off about the layout down there.  They realized there was a hidden vault (call Geraldo!).  What does a guy who has sold gold bathrooms feel like he needs to hide?

Art.  Really valuable really famous art.  Rembrandts, Titians, etc.  Art he’s got no business having.  Art that was stolen from museums and private collections–in fact, some of these paintings Elkins and Wiss stole themselves, for some art dealer who was obviously acting as a beard for Marino.  He’s a bigger thief than they ever were.  But before they can do anything about it, they realize that the vault had a separate alarm system they hadn’t disabled, and the cops are coming.  Their two partners got caught, but they managed to drive the other truck deep into the surrounding woods, on little back roads, over into Canada, and they finally had to get out and walk.  Froze their asses off, but they got away.

And now their partners are out, on really large bail, and basically no hope of getting off–if they skip bail, their families will be stuck with the tab.  The law is pushing them hard to divulge who they were working with, for a lighter sentence.   The way they see it, if Elkins and Wiss had left well enough alone, stuck to the job they’d agreed on, they wouldn’t be in this mess.  They want to run, create new identities, and they need money for that.  So either Elkins and Wiss heist the art and give them their share, or they spill everything they know.  The clock is ticking, and they need to do it soon, or go on the run themselves.  They have families too, established lives in the straight world, and would rather avoid that eventuality.  Plus, you know, they like money.

But here’s the catch–the original heist created what Larry calls a firebreak (don’t know how common that phrase was among techies back then, but it’s sure used a lot with regards to web security now).  A small fire that prevents a bigger one.  Because his security was circumvented–which could have led not only to loss of his property, but also the loss of his freedom, if it came out he had all this stolen art–Marino will have heavily upgraded his system.  Indeed, the only reason the law hasn’t already picked up Wiss and Elkins is that Marino didn’t want security cameras down there with those Old Masters he’s not supposed to have.  Larry figures that’s still probably the case, but they’ll have to feel their way in carefully.

So in spite of some lingering doubts about Mr. Lloyd’s reliability, Parker says he’s in, but he has to deal with some personal shit first.  Needless to say, it never occurs to him to ask for help with that, nor does it occur to Elkins and Wiss to offer any.  We’ve come a long way from the days of Handy McKay.  Every man for himself, when it’s not part of a heisting job.  And that’s very much the way Parker wants it.  But he will be requiring some assistance in this matter later in the story, all the same.

This Charov’s ID says he lives in Chicago.  Parker goes there to check out his apartment, which is full of small pistols carefully stashed in every room, in case somebody comes after him there (man after Parker’s own heart).  Charov’s family is in Russia, where he hails from–he’s been living far away from home, in order to support them, like many a hard-working immigrant.

Parker figures he was on retainer with some big outfit, and maybe doing freelance hits on the side.  Best way to find whoever wanted Parker dead is to find his employer–he finds an envelope addressed to Charov from a company called Cosmopolitan Beverages, in Bayonne, New Jersey.  Importers.  Not just of beverages, it seems.

He also finds a piece of paper with three names on it, two written in Cyrillic.  The third entry is the name Willis, written in English, so Charov could recognize it on the mailbox.  The name Claire uses, one of Parker’s discarded aliases that she adopted as a way of writing herself into his past.  The other names may prove to be of interest, so he’ll have to get them translated.  Perhaps most importantly, he plays back the messages on Charov’s answering machine, and the second is clearly a client, trying to find out if the job has been done–and the voice sounds familiar.  He can’t quite place it.

He calls Cosmopolitan Beverages, talks to their accountant, a Ms. Bursar (heh).  She says she never heard of any Viktor Charov, he certainly does not work as a purchasing agent for them,  though that seems to have been his work title of record.  Parker is sure the woman is telling the truth, as she knows it.  Charov had a no-show job there, to justify his presence in the U.S.  Like so many other things, killing people for money has been outsourced.  Actually, that started much earlier with contract killing than it did for many other walks of life.

For years the hit men came from Italy, know-nothing rural toughs called zips, who spoke no English, came in only to do the job and collect their low pay, and then flew back out again.  But that system soon began to break down.  Some of the zips refused to go home, some of them got caught and didn’t know how to take care of themselves inside the American system, some of them had loyalties in Europe that conflicted with their one-time-only employers in the United States.

It’s still better, all in all, to have a contract killer whose  home base is far away, in some other land.  But it pays to have somebody reliable, educated, useful over the long term.  Viktor Charov could come and go as he pleased, cloaked by his “job” at Cosmopolitan Beverages.  He could take on whatever private work he wanted, and from time to time the people who’d given him his cover would ask him to do a little something for them.

But the mob wasn’t behind the run at Parker.  That had been a civilian, that nervous voice on the answering machine in Chicago.  It was one of his independent contractor jobs that had run out Charov’s string.

Parker has to do a lot of multi-tasking in this one.  He flies up to Montana, taking a commuter flight from Great Falls up to Havre.  Beautiful wild country, hope to get there before I die.  He meets his partners, and they scope out the ‘lodge’ together.  As expected, the security has been ramped up, at great expense.  Larry Lloyd is absolutely essential to figuring out the technology, finding its weak points.  Without him, there’s no job at all.

They can’t even get near the big house without tripping an alarm, but they check out the house the security staff stay in, and Larry can go right up to it–no valuables inside, just one man on duty in the big house now, with Marino not currently resident.  He checks out the telecommunications hook-up.  He says he can get in–meaning he can hack into their system (the word ‘hack’ doesn’t appear in this book, which probably means Westlake didn’t like it being used in that context, or just wanted to avoid getting caught up in techno-jargon as much as possible).

Elkins wants to know if they can ‘get in’ in the older sense of the term.  You can’t cyber-heist a Rembrandt.  Some things still have to be done in three dimensions.  (Remember when sex was one of them?  Oh, never mind.)

At the present time, the plan is that they find a way past the security system in the big house, and Larry won’t even be in Montana during the heist–he can do his part of the job from Boston, now that he’s got the information he needed about their hook-up to the phone lines.  He can do his part with a few mouse clicks in Massachusetts.  Best laid schemes of mice and men……

Bad news on the home front.  Parker told Claire to check into a hotel in New York before he left.  She got word from the cleaning lady that the house in New Jersey was broken into.  The hit is still on.  He tells her he’ll meet her for dinner when he gets back–after he looks at the house (which he suspects has been booby-trapped).  And he asks her to find somebody who reads Cyrillic.

He comes at the house in a ‘borrowed’ rowboat he takes from another of the houses surrounding Colliver Pond–same way he did in Deadly Edge.  He enters through the screen porch in back.  He methodically searches the house, and finally finds the trip-wire at the front door–it triggers a tiny camera.  So the idea is that somebody is nearby, looking at a monitor, waiting for it to switch on, and will know if the person who entered the house is Parker or not.  Don’t want to blow up the cleaning lady.  That wouldn’t be professional.  He needs to find the house that monitor is in, but figures it can wait.  He heads for the city.

After a pleasurable reunion with Claire (I do sometimes lament the lack of explicit sex scenes in the Parker novels; you never have this problem with Max Allan Collins and Quarry–bit of a Puritan streak in Mr. Stark), she and Parker go to a furrier in Manhattan, run by a Russian woman of seemingly aristocratic lineage who Stark says looks like a pouter pigeon.  Stark remarks in passing that “Her manner was coolly highbred, as though the entire Bolshevik interlude had been no more than unpleasant weekend guests who’d overstayed their welcome.  The Russia she came from still had czars.”  Some of whom don’t like to wear shirts.

Claire can multi-task with the best of them as well, and found a translator for Parker who also has something of interest to her, namely very expensive fur coats–you get a little hint here of where all the money goes between heists.  Parker offers no objection–he enjoys Claire’s little fashion shows, and the only point in having money is to spend it.  Given his ascetic tastes, and his lack of interest in gambling, if he didn’t have Claire around, he wouldn’t have an excuse to work more than once a decade or so.  Those of us who love these books owe her a vote of thanks.

Madame Irina, whose accent sounds more French than Russian, is quite willing to translate Parker’s note, does not care to question the rather threadbare excuse for why he needs it translated.  She says the first name is Brock, with the initial P.  The second–well, Parker can easily guess the second now.  Damn.  Rosenstein and Guilden-Brock aren’t dead, after all.

At a restaurant, Parker fills in Claire (and late-arriving readers) about what happened in The Sour Lemon Score, how he left these two guys alive, and how it’s come back to bite them. They agree to go their separate ways until Parker’s cleaned up the mess.  Claire, slightly miffed she can’t go back to her house, perhaps a bit more bothered that she might have been collateral damage here (Parker actually apologizes to her, though the tone you hear in his voice doesn’t sound all that contrite), sucks it in like the trouper she is; says she’ll take her new coat and show it off in Paris.  That Montana heist better pay off good.  High maintenance, to say the least.  (But worth it.)

And now Parker is going to find out why all of this happened in the first place.  He gets a call from Elkins, who sounds tense.  They need to have another meet.  Larry had a security lapse–Parker doesn’t understand.  He asks if the law picked him up.  No, Parker, not that kind of security.

They meet in Great Barrington, Massachusetts.  Everybody looks very serious.  Larry looks downright redfaced.  He tries to explain it to Parker–in his old job, you backed everything up.  He created a file.  This file had contact information for the people he’s working with, or expects to be working with, on this job.  It had contact information for Parker he got from Elkins and Wiss.  Presumably under more than one name (there’s no way just ‘Parker’ would do it).  It had the address of the house in New Jersey.  It was on the internet. Somebody got into the file, and that’s how they found out where Parker lives, and that’s why Viktor Charov showed up there just as Elkins was calling to sound him out about the Montana job.  Brock hadn’t wasted any time.

Cloud computing was just starting to be a big thing about 2000, but it was available to true cognoscenti well before then.  I assume that’s what Larry is talking about here, but it’s not made clear.  I mean, if he just had a file stored in the hard drive of his computer, it’s not like somebody randomly trawling the web in search of a guy named Parker could just randomly break into it, right? Seriously, I don’t know.  The technical data is kept intentionally vague here, for the simple reason that Westlake doesn’t know very much about the tech, doesn’t want to do a ton of research into it, doesn’t want the story to get bogged down in a lot of cyber-jumbo.  That’s not what we read Westlake or Stark for.

But I imagine there will be those who will want to nitpick, and having done quite a lot of that myself regarding the last book, I’m in no position to throw stones–nor am I remotely equipped to nitpick myself.  It sounds possible, and Parker observes to himself (his own technical knowledge is fairly limited in this area) that Paul Brock had already been into recording technology when they first encountered each other.  He could have expanded into computers quite easily, and he never would have forgottten Parker’s unforgivable rape of his beautiful apartment, or Parker shooting both him and Rosenstein either.  Of course, he’d be well into his sixties now, if these characters were all aging normally, but clearly he and Rosenstein came through the time warp into the digital age as well.  They should have stayed back in the analog.

Larry’s tone is infinitely contrite.  He keeps talking about how stupid he is.  Parker doesn’t need to be told that.  Larry says something about how old habits die hard.  “Some things die easier,” Parker responds.  Not a warning.  Just an observation.

From this moment onwards, to the end of the book, Larry Lloyd is on double secret probation with Parker.  That button in Parker’s head that makes him kill whoever sets if off it hasn’t quite been pushed, but it’s been nudged, hard.    Larry compromised Parker’s home base–he’s erased the data now, nobody else can get it, but to Parker this just confirms Mr. Lloyd can’t be counted on, that he’s as much of a threat as any loose-lipped idiot gabbing in a bar about the cool heist he’s pulling, except he’s gabbing to anyone who has internet connectivity.  The law has no end of that.

First heist we ever saw Parker on, as soon as it was over, he was going to kill Mal Resnick, a partner who had not yet betrayed him (though it was coming), simply because Parker sensed there was something off about the guy, that he was a threat.  Larry’s good intentions don’t matter a damn here.  If Parker identifies Larry Lloyd as a threat to his life or freedom, he will start seeing Larry Lloyd as a dead man.  Period.

That’s the end of Part 1 (of 4, naturally), and that’s where we’re going to leave it for now.  I detect the outlines of a three-part review here.  Good thing I found a lot of cover images.  Like Backflash, it’s got an involved backstory.  Lots of loose ends to tie up.  Oooh, kinky.

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Filed under Donald Westlake novels, Parker Novels, Richard Stark