NB: A version of this post also appears on Existential Ennui.
In the previous Parker Progress Report, I took a look at the seventeenth Parker, Comeback (1997), originally published twenty-three years after the sixteenth Parker, Butcher’s Moon (1974). Luckily, Parker fans didn’t have quite so long to wait for the next book in the series: Backflash arrived just one year later, in 1998.
Clearly, Westlake was back in the Parker groove; where Comeback had taken him twenty years to write (on and off… mostly off), now he was writing the Parkers fast again: a new one would appear every year or two until the author’s death in 2008. Whether that’s why Backflash is a better book than Comeback—which, to my mind, it is—I don’t know, but it’s at least notable that that’s the way Westlake wrote the Parkers in the original 1962-1974 run.
And actually, as with Comeback, Backflash could quite easily have slotted into that original run. It starts with a “When”; it’s divided into four parts; and Parker’s cohorts all hail from earlier books: racetrack driver Mike Carlow from The Rare Coin Score and Butcher’s Moon; stout, fastidious expat Lou Sternberg and female heister (heistess? With the meistess?) Noelle Braselle from Plunder Squad; and professional wrestler Dan Wycza from The Score and Butcher’s Moon—in the latter of which, like Comeback‘s Ed Mackey, Wycza seemingly came back from the dead. Although we never actually witnessed Wycza’s death in the first place—Parker merely reports it in The Rare Coin Score with a perfunctory “He’s dead,” while Westlake heralds his resurrection in Backflash with an equally perfunctory, “There was a rumor he was dead for a while, but then he’d popped up again.” And the score is classic Parker too; novel, sure—Parker and co. take down a floating casino on the Hudson River—but a straight cash grab nonetheless. Mind you, straight doesn’t necessarily equate to straightforward: the heist itself goes as planned, but as is often the way in a Parker story, the aftermath gets bloody.
There’s a belief among some Parker fans that the later books, and Parker in particular, are somehow softer than the earlier ones—that Westlake and his most famous creation mellowed with age. Frankly, I see little evidence of it here. From Parker’s blunt assessment of a co-heister’s condition following a car crash at the start of the book (“You’re fucked”) to his cold, calculating tying off of a—all-too-human—loose end in the latter stages, he’s as heartless—and ruthless—as he’s ever been.
The odd mishap aside, traditionally Parker has usually only killed when absolutely necessary: to protect himself, his money, his moll (Claire), or, and perhaps most importantly of all, his rep. And so it is in Backflash. That said, and to counter the “humanising” argument, I think it’s possible to detect something new in his dispatching of his nemesis at the end of Backflash—an even deeper chill. Parker’s never been a (movie) James Bond, dispensing terminally unfunny quips as he offs not-quite-as-bad-as-he-is guys, but he has proffered the occasional one-liner, perhaps the best being “Now you’re the message” in Butcher’s Moon. As menacing as that is, though, his closing one in Backflash strikes me as being even colder, simply because of the distracted, offhand manner in which it’s delivered. With his adversary gut-shot and writhing in agony at his feet, Parker reflects on the act of mercy at the start of the novel which ultimately led him to this point. Ignoring the guy’s “panting and spitting out words,” Parker muses, “We live and learn,” and shoots him in the eye.
Of course, having made the same merciful mistake with George Uhl in The Sour Lemon Score (Parker #12) and consequently paid the price in Plunder Squad (Parker #15), you’d have thought that’s one lesson Parker might have taken to heart by now. If only he had one.
Next—the basis for the imminent Taylor Hackford/Jason Statham Parker movie: Flashfire.