NB: A version of this post also appears on Existential Ennui.
With Backflash (1998), the second entry in the second run of Donald E. “Richard Stark” Westlake’s Parker novels, Westlake was firmly back in the Parker groove. It was a classic Parker heist tale: an intriguing target (a casino riverboat); a familiar crew; and a bloody aftermath. But there’s another type of Parker tale, one where the heist, if there even is one, isn’t the focus of the book; where Parker’s on the back foot, foiled at every turn, scrabbling to retrieve what he can from a foul-up: books like The Seventh, The Sour Lemon Score, Plunder Squad, and even, going right back to the beginning, Parker’s debut, The Hunter (1962), which opens with Parker double-crossed and penniless. And joining these, the third entry in the second block of Parkers: Parker #19, Flashfire (1999).
Flashfire has something else in common with The Hunter, too, in that we get to see Parker commit the kinds of crimes he prefers to avoid: small scores, taken down by himself, with the bare minimum of planning. Having been double-crossed (yet again) at the start of the novel, Parker finds himself in the position of needing to build up funds in order to get back at the heisters who’ve crossed him (and unwisely left him alive). And so he embarks on a trek across the States from Indiana to Florida—where his erstwhile compatriots are planning a jewelry heist—on the way robbing a gun shop, a check-cashing store, a drug-dealing operation, a movie theater, and a bunch of houses.
This is Parker in the raw: stripped of cohorts, brutally efficient, driven by the same two interlinked aims as in The Hunter: revenge, and getting what he’s owed. In the Parker series as a whole, it’s the big, flashy take-downs that tend to remain in the memory—a football game; an entire town; an entire island—but in their relatively quiet way, these short episodes are as good as anything else Westlake wrote for the Parkers: clipped, economical, the crimes all the more believable for their simplicity.
The irony is that while Parker carries off his crime spree successfully, he comes a cropper when attempting to secure new false ID, through sheer bad luck getting caught up in the middle of a bloody encounter that will ultimately see him shot and left for dead in the Everglades. That his salvation comes in the unlikely shape of a forty-year old estate agent named Lesley is just one of many surprising aspects of a book which confounds expectations at every turn.
It probably speaks to something troubling in my character that it’s these kinds of frustrating, erratic, oddly misshapen Parkers that I enjoy the most. They appeal to me in the same way that Elmore Leonard‘s work does: they’re possessed of an understanding that it doesn’t matter how smart, tough, and proficient you are, like anyone else you can still take a wrong turn and wind up in a cul-de-sac—or, in Parker’s case in Flashfire, a hospital bed. Time and again in Flashfire the signs point one way only to lead to somewhere unexpected, right down to the final confrontation with the men who crossed Parker, which sees him effectively sidelined. I suspect that Flashfire‘s idiosyncratic tendencies—plot strands derailed by the unforeseen and happenstance, violent scenes where the protagonist ends up being almost a bystander, tension pumped up only to be deflated at the last moment—is why the novel is less well liked than others in the second run of Parkers, but for me, perversely I guess, it makes it a more compelling book.
Of course, quite what the makers of Parker, the Jason Statham-starring movie adaptation of Flashfire, due in US cinemas on 25 January, will make of all this remains to be seen (and will seemingly remain that way for me until March, as the film isn’t out in the UK until then). I suppose it’s unreasonable to expect a Hollywood production that’s potentially the first installment in a new franchise to take quite so many chances with narrative as the nineteenth novel in a series . . . but I live in hope.