Considering Westlake: Flashfire

Flashfire-Westlake StarkBy the time 2000 rolled around, Donald E. Westlake had been chronicling master heister Parker’s adventures for almost four decades. Sure, the Richard Stark pen name had taken a bit of a hiatus for about two of those decades, but there are only so many times you can write a criminal doing crimes, right? Even during the initial flurry of releases, Parker had seldom been relegated to crime of the week sorts of format. Sure, his life involved scores, but the novels themselves often dealt with the lead up or fall outs of those scores. Writing about the crimes themselves was only a part in a larger work.

However, the one thing each of the books had in place was that Parker was the lead guy, the thinker and planner for those crimes. As Westlake returned to the series later in his career, a reader begins to see some major efforts to avoid repeating what had come before. The novel Flashfire is a solid case in point of the author stumbling across one lynchpin conceit the series had been riding along on and tugging that conceit out of the mix. This time around, Parker would not be the driving force of the book’s central crime at all.

Backing up, the novel opens with a string completing a successful bank job. There’s money to be had for each of the members. None of these guys are folks Parker has worked with before, but they have all been given a thumbs up by a trusted guy Parker has worked with. Well, it turns out the string is otherwise well known and they already have their next job lined up. This bank job was just a sort of getting-to-know-you caper, and they like Parker enough to invite him in to the next piece. It’s a jewelry robbery in Palm Beach. As in the infamous line that begins both The Hunter and Parker’s adventures, our antihero tells the gang to go to hell. When asked why, he explains the problems with their scenario:

Parker shook his head. “Deal me out.”

Ross said, “You don’t want to listen to the job?”

“I just heard the job,” Parker told him. “Twelve million in jewelry all in one place draws a lot of attention. Cops, private cops, guards, sentries, probably dogs, definitely helicopters, metal-detecting machines, all of that. Then you put it in Palm Beach, which has more police per square inch than anywhere else on earth. They’re all rich in Palm Beach, and they all want to stay that way. And besides that, it’s an island, with three narrow bridges, they can seal that place like it’s shrink wrap.”

“All of this is true,” Ross said. “But we got a way in, and we got a way at, and we got a way out.”

“Then I still know the job,” Parker told him, “and I still don’t want it.”

Melander said, “Just out of curiosity, why?”

“Because to even think about doing your job,” Parker told him, “and to do it in Palm Beach, there’s two things you got to have. One is the insider, who’s the amateur, who’s gonna bring you down. And the other is a boat, which is the only way off the island, which is even worse than an island, because there’s no way off a boat.” (11-12)

These guys are not complete nitwits, however; they have a line on buying a house, pulling the jewelry heist, and then sitting pretty as new-but-not-suspiciously-new residents of the area. A smart man, Parker wishes them well but wants no part in their gig. He will take his split and … well, split. Unfortunately for the gang, the money acquired from the job is far less than they were hoping for or in need of. The house they have a line on? Well, they need a specific amount to pay for it. And, well, since Parker isn’t going in on the job with them but they still need his cash, well, they’re going to have to take his split. This is not heisters heisting a fellow heister, of course. It’s a loan that will be paid back. Parker says no way, of course, and then the gang gets insistent. Needless to say, Parker is left behind alive and with assurances of a payback (and maybe an apology) but without his share of the money. You might guess where this will be leading; Parker is the man who took on the entire Outfit/mob for seventy thousand dollars wrongly taken from him by a former partner. Taking on a trio of jokers with jewelry ambitions is far less dangerous than that little gig. Soon enough, he’s on the trail.

That trail leads to quite a few minor heists and associations with nasty human beings. He has to get a stake to work with, has to acquire a new identity, and has to end up in Palm Beach with a clean enough record to avoid passing scrutiny. So, he adopts the guise of a Texas oil man, arranges with another guy-vouched-for-by-a-known-guy for clean papers, and . . . And trouble kicks in again.

The counterfeiter is good at his work, but a dude he’s done business for wants to rub out anyone who knows about his identity switch. Parker picks up attention from an unknown source between getting his split taken away and getting to Palm Beach. Well, by the time he arrives in Palm Beach, several weeks have passed. He uses a local realtor to identify the house the heisters might be using. Leslie is his guide to the weird world of wealthy idiots who call Palm Beach home. She is not wealthy herself, comes from the much poorer side of the tracks; in fact, she still lives with her mother and sister in West Palm Beach. However, she can smell something rotten about Parker’s performance as a slick Texas man in search of a new house. For one thing, he’s not interested in houses.

Parker should have learned from his experience in Comeback: he’s no actor. In that book, in order to get out of trouble and get the skinny on a traitorous string member, he posed as an insurance man and worked with the very people he helped rob. The head of security caught on to him soon enough. Parker talks like a crook, he behaves like a crook, and he is a crook to his marrow. Parker is not a con man, he’s a hardboiled son of a bitch who takes money away from people. He cannot pull off an insurance guy. He sure as hell cannot pull off a laid-back Texas boy looking for a house.

So, Leslie deals herself into his score, and although he initially weighs killing her instead, she proves useful enough. Parker is a man who understands the usefulness of people, after all. The score is simple: Figure out the heister’s jewelry gig, wait for them to pull it off and then take it away from them. Parker is not the go to man for this particular score; he’s riding along in the back seat waiting for the hard work to be finished. If the heisters are successful, then he gets his money back as well as all the money they’ve got. If they fail, well, he can rip off their safe house and take whatever of value he can find there.

Needless to say, even a laidback score like this has more than its share of surprises. Nothing is easy in Parker’s violent world. Readers would not like it if anything was easy. Parker needs to work for his money, and lucky us he is not afraid to work.

For a book where Parker sits in the backseat for the main heist, there are plenty of smaller robberies he is responsible for. The opening sections alone recall the wonderful medley of jobs pulled by Parker’s acquaintances in the third book of the series, The Outfit, back when he was waging a war of attrition against the titular organization. In that book, independent contractors were taking on big business and showing that big business how easy it was to break their profits. This time around, Parker is building up like a hurricane. He is a criminal force of nature blowing across the country, laying things to waste as needed en route to his actual target zone. The opening section of the book is one hell of a treat to read, playing out like the opening to The Hunter, which found Parker getting to New York, getting a new ID, getting a stake by buying expensive luggage with a stolen credit card and then selling it at a pawn shop, and stiffing a waitress on the price of a cup of coffee as well as taking her tips his way out the door. He’s a bad man, that Parker is. The only people who get in his way are fools looking for an early grave.

Perhaps the next best treat for me as a reader is the locations he visits. A chunk of the book takes place in Texas. Houston for a few pages and San Antonio for a few more. I live in the first at present and lived in the second some years back. In fact, Say-town was my introduction to Texas, and I have no small amount of affection for that city; Houston is a working burg, San Antonio is the fun one. Parker’s cover identity as Daniel Parmitt has residence in San Antonio, and he ventures there to lay some cover bank accounts and what not, giving us descriptions like this:

Daniel Parmitt’s address in San Antonio, according to his driver’s license, was an office building downtown; nobody lived there.

Parker stayed in three motels off Interstate 10 for three nights while setting himself up in town. A real estate agent showed him rental houses, and the second day he found what he needed in Alamo Heights, between McNay Art Museum and Fort Sam Houston National Cemetery. It was a three-bedroom two-story fake-Gothic yellow clapboard house with a turret, set back from a winding, hilly street among modestly upscale houses. (72)

I can honestly say I know those locations pretty well. The office building downtown would be in sighting distance of the Alamo itself, which is stuck right next to the business district. Alamo Heights is a washed out upscale locale—washed out because everything in San Antonio is washed out by the relentless sun. I might not know the exact location he is staying in (and I don’t really care to; this is fiction, after all), but I can recall the feel of those neighborhoods easy enough. As I have mentioned in other reviews (most recently, Dean Koontz’s The Mercy of Snakes), I love a book that can properly capture the essence of a location I have lived in. Westlake captures a hardboiled variation on Texas I have known in a way that is immediately recognizable.

Likewise, the Florida set stuff is also recognizable. While I have never lived in Palm Beach, Trista and I almost relocated to the much poorer West Palm Beach some years back when her job moved from San Antonio to that region. We visited the area, decided no way Jose, and instead stuck it out in Texas. I think we made the right move. However, that whirlwind long weekend trip to the region was enough to cement the area in my head enough to nod in approval at Westlake’s terse view of the scenery and evocation of the location.

Flashfire‘s real accomplishment for me, however, is section 3. As with the previous volumes of Parker’s series, Stark/Westlake divides the book into four parts. Three of these are told from Parker’s point of view—there is a bit of a cheat this time around via a chapter relayed in first person from Leslie’s perspective at first, but is relayed as a story she tells Parker in the third person finale to the chapter—and one of these sections relates points of view from an assortment of characters that are not Parker. In Flashfire, however, the third section (not Parker) is a masterwork of suspense. It is a condensed novel all its own, rife with mystery and unexpected characterizations. Other novelists could and would spin this single section into a massive novel of its own, but Westlake’s Richard Stark persona manages to accomplish all the heavy lifting and emotional setup and payoffs in a tiny fraction of the space other authors might use. This is a novel within the novel, with a cast of dozens. A solid accomplishment in the spirit of J. G. Ballard’s condensed novels, distilling the work down to its essential components and still delivering the full novel experience of having traveled through hell.

Flashfire is one of the handful of Stark novels to receive a film treatment. It is one of the even fewer still properties granted a big budget to play with. It is the only adaptation to use the lead character’s actual name, and it takes that name for the film itself: Parker (2013). The film starred Jason Statham as Parker and Jennifer Lopez as Leslie, with some supporting turns from Michael Chiklis, Carlos Carrasco, and Nick Nolte. However, it is barely recognizable as an adaptation of the novel and a poor adaptation of the character. The acting is fun, the film story is nowhere near as cool as it ought to be. If anyone was hoping it would be the vehicle to launch a Richard Stark series of flicks, well such hopes were squashed.

The novel, however, is an absorbing read on par with some of the earliest Stark novels.

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Flashfire is available in eBook and paperback editions as part of the effort to bring all the Richard Stark books back into print under a single publisher. An audiobook edition is also available.

Next week, we continue the Considering Westlake reading series with the next volume in the Parker series. Firebreak gives some old enemies another chance to take Parker down, and divides Parker’s attention between a score taking paintings from a dotcom millionaire and covering his ass. It is available in eBook, paperback and audiobook editions.

WORKS CITED

Stark, Richard. Flashfire. Mysterious Press: 2000.

“Considering Westlake: Flashfire” is copyright © 2020 by Daniel R. Robichaud. Quotes and cover image taken from the University of Chicago Press edition, copyright © 2011.

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