Lawrence Block’s introduction to U of C Press’ Backflash

I know some people skip introductions, forewords, afterwords, &c. Not me. I love ’em. There are several posted on this site, and every single one of them is interesting.

Of course, on this site I can only post forewords and so on from out-of-print editions, usually long-out-of-print editions, and even then I’m walking a fine line. (I’ve gotten permission for some, and I’m happy to report that to date no one’s complained about the others.) I’ve never printed a foreword from an in-print edition until now.

Fortunately, the University of Chicago Press and Lawrence Block have been kind enough to grant me permission to post Mr. Block’s foreword to Backflash, one of three he wrote for the latest batch of Parker reprints. If you haven’t picked up one of U of C’s reprints yet, the material below the fold will give you a good idea of what you’re missing. Enjoy.


Copyright 2011 Lawrence Block

In 1997, Donald Westlake published Comeback, his seventeenth novel about a professional thief named Parker. The title was remarkably apt, as twenty-three years had come and gone since Butcher’s Moon, the sixteenth book in the series.

When Parker returned in Comeback, it was as if he’d never left. He was still very much himself, still happily coupled with Claire, still doing the same sort of work and leading the same kind of life between engagements. Nor was his return that of an old performer managing one last star turn before slipping into permanent retirement; on the contrary, he was back with a vengeance, and in the next decade seven more novels rolled out of their author’s typewriter (a Smith-Corona manual portable, in case you were wondering) and took their place on bookstore shelves.

Backflash followed Comeback a year later, and was followed in turn by Flashfire, Firebreak, and Breakout. Does a subtle pattern begin to emerge? Don liked a certain amount of gimmickry in series titles, and the gimmick here was simple enough; each title would be a two-syllable compound word, with the second syllable of one book becoming the first syllable of the next. After Breakout in 2002, the next book would logically begin with Out. Outcome would have brought matters full circle, but I don’t believe Don seriously considered it; instead he dropped the titular sequence and moved on to Nobody Runs Forever.

This was not the first title sequence for the series. The early books were all two-word titles, consisting of a noun preceded by the. The Hunter, The Outfit, The Mourner, The Score, The Jugger, The Seventh, The Handle. (And yes, I’ve omitted book two, The Man with the Getaway Face.) Then came a four-book Score sequence: The Rare Coin Score, The Green Eagle Score, The Black Ice Score, and The Sour Lemon Score. Then Deadly Edge, Slayground, Plunder Squad, and Butcher’s Moon.

Title sequences serve chiefly to remind the reader that there’s a series here, but they can serve other purposes as well. One of these is the author’s personal amusement; it is by no means coincidental that The Seventh, so-called because the proceeds of a job are to be split seven ways, was indeed the seventh book of the series.

With the post–Butcher’s Moon books, the linked titles helped keep the reader aware of the order of the books, with one title—and one book—leading to another. And, because in this particular instance Don thought of the next title before he knew what the book would be about, they helped lead him to his plot.

That’s less obvious with Backflash, which suggests the word flashback, and in which the storyline doesn’t particularly echo the title. Afterward, in Flashfire and Firebreak, the title and the plot are more closely linked, and Breakout is, obviously, about a breakout.

Nobody Runs Forever (2004) was an ominous title, suggesting that Parker’s run might in fact be over. Not so. Two years later he was back in Ask the Parrot, and in 2008 he made his last appearance, in Dirty Money.

A few months later, on the last day of the year, Don died. Nobody writes forever.

* * *

When the car stopped rolling, Parker kicked out the windshield and crawled through onto the wrinkled hood, Glock first.

Title patterns come and go over the two dozen Parker novels, but a couple of other elements have been more of a constant. The opening is one of these. In each book’s initial sentence, something happens and Parker reacts. When this happened, Parker did this—and we’re off and running.

When the guy with asthma finally came in from the fire escape, Parker rabbit-punched him and took his gun away.

When the woman screamed, Parker awoke and rolled off the bed.

When the bandages came off, Parker looked in the mirror at a stranger.

When the knock came at the door, Parker was just turning to the obituary page.

When the bellboy left, Parker went over to the house phone and made his call.

When a fresh-faced guy in a Chevy offered him a lift, Parker told him to go to hell.

When the helicopter swept northward and lifted out of sight over the top of the hill, Parker stepped away from the tree he’d waited beside and continued his climb.

When the shit hit the fan, Parker threw himself in front of it.

Well, no, I made up that last one. But you get the idea. When A, then B.

There are a few books that open differently—The Black Ice Score, The Sour Lemon Score, Deadly Edge. I don’t think Don wanted to be a slave to anything, even if it were something of his own devising. A title sequence would be maintained until it became unwieldy, or tiresome; an opening would serve until a variation seemed to serve better.

* * *

If we can spot a pattern in openings and titles, so can we find one in the structure of the Parker books. Typically, they consist of four sections, and it is not much of a stretch to think of them as four movements of a symphony. The first two sections are told entirely from Parker’s point of view, and in their course he settles on a criminal enterprise, assembles a crew, makes his plans and preparations, and has at it.

Then, in the third section (or sometimes the second), every episode is recounted from the point of view of one of the other characters. Parker may or may not be present in any of these scenes, but we’re not privy to his thoughts and impressions. Instead, we watch the story unfold through the eyes of all the other players in the game, including both his partners and the players on the other side, as well as those citizens caught in the middle.

The fourth section returns us to Parker’s point of view, as he does what he can to see things through to a favorable conclusion.

Not every book adheres strictly to this pattern—in Deadly Edge, for example, the non-Parker section is told entirely from the point of view of Claire, who is in jeopardy—but it’s the template for most of the series. But for the word’s unfortunate connotations, it would not be unfair to describe the books as formulaic.

To many readers, and not a few writers as well, the idea of a formula suggests that it makes things easy for the writer, that it reduces the need for imagination and creativity, that he who possesses a formula can simply dash off or grind out books as required, with no need to be inventive. The writer becomes a sort of blackjack dealer, hitting sixteen and staying with seventeen, scooping up losing bets and paying off winners, and, inevitably the beneficiary of a mathematical edge, coming out ahead in the end.

And, by God, anybody could do it, if only one possessed the formula. But, alas, it’s as closely guarded as the formula for Coca-Cola.

Well, that’s not how it works. First of all, one remarkable thing about prose fiction is that there are no secrets concealed in it. The process is wholly self-evident. You might wonder how a painter managed to achieve the particular luminescence on a particular canvas, but you can see at a glance how a writer achieved a given effect. He took these words—the ones you see on the page—and he put them in this particular order. And there you have it.

* * *

Parker doesn’t age much in the course of the series. Time passes and his history accumulates, with characters recurring from book to book, but Parker remains pretty much the same unspecified age. Early middle age, I suppose. Forties, fifties. It doesn’t much matter. He’s always Parker.

Whether a series character will age or evolve is one of the decisions an author has to make. Among my own series, Bernie Rhodenbarr never gets a day older, while Matthew Scudder has aged in real time, going from his late thirties to his early seventies in the years I’ve been writing about him. (Sue Grafton found an interesting variant for Kinsey Millhone; Kinsey ages in real fictional time, but it takes three books for one year to pass; now, as the series nears its end, the books are set a couple of decades in the past.)

Parker’s world changes, and that’s how the early books show their age. There are no cell phones or credit cards, and it’s a lot easier to live off the grid and fly under the radar. By the later books, it’s hard to find anything to steal; big blocks of cash, there for the taking, are hard to come by in a credit economy.

Parker’s world, it should be said, is a small one; it consists only of what touches his awareness. There is no war, no politics.

Does Parker himself change at all? It seems to me he mellows the slightest bit. Some of that may be Claire’s doing, but some may simply be time. Parker’s not much for small talk, and his humor is pretty much limited to irony, but I’d say he’s somewhat better company in the later books.

Still, you wouldn’t want to rile him.

* * *

I had the feeling, when I signed on to introduce these books, that the project would have me reading the books again. And I’ve been doing just that, and not only the three it’s been my pleasure to introduce. When I took a moment to discuss opening lines, one of the books I picked up was The Black Ice Score. I read it through, and the two that followed it, The Sour Lemon Score and Deadly Edge. Next is Slayground, but I think I’ll drop back first and refresh my memory of Parker’s meeting with Claire, in The Rare Coin Score.

I remember when Don researched that one. I took him along to a numismatic convention in Indianapolis, where he enjoyed himself talking to coin dealer friends of mine. He used Indianapolis for the book’s setting, used the hotel as well, changing its name from the Claypool to the Claymore.

What is it that makes the books so re-readable? They’re suspenseful, but that is less a factor when you’ve already read them. They’re brilliantly written, too, and it’s nice watching a master at work, but I don’t think that’s enough to explain the phenomenon.

It’s Parker, I guess, when all is said and done. He’s a sociopath, I suppose, and God knows he’s got the social skills of a boulder, but the choices he makes and the way he executes them make him compellingly interesting. Even when you know what he’s going to do next, it’s just plain fascinating to watch him do it.

And that’s enough from me. Here’s Parker in Backflash—and, whether you’re reading it for the first time or the fifth, I’ve a feeling you’re going to enjoy yourself.

Lawrence Block

Lawrence Block has written series fiction about Matthew Scudder, Bernie Rhodenbarr, Evan Tanner, Chip Harrison, and a killer named Keller. You can email him at, check him out at, or look for him on Facebook.