Donald E. Westlake’s pseudonym Richard Stark knows how to kick off his novels with incredible first lines and openings. The novel Firebreak is no slouch in that area:
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 round 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.
No time to do anything with the body now. Parker stood and was entering the kitchen from the garage when Claire came in the other way, carrying the cordless. “He says his name is Elkins,” she told him.
He knew the name. Taking the cordless, he said, “I’ll have to go out for a while.” Then, moving into the dining room, where the windows looked away from the lake, out toward the woods where the stranger had come from, he said, “Frank?”(3)
Wow. And off we go on another adventure.
As it turns out, the man Parker is killing in the garage—a Russian hitman called Viktor Charov—is an employee of unknown parties hired to sit outside of Claire’s house and pick our anti-hero off. This assassin is not the only hired killer on Parker’s trail, either. Well, this unknown party seeking Parker’s death is a bit of a dampener on things. How is Parker supposed to focus on the new score, which has fallen into his lap?
That score is a sweet one, too. While breaking into a dotcom millionaire’s remote estate to rip off the man’s solid gold crappers, a group of heisters discovered a secret room in his basement holding paintings. Renaissance sorts of artworks. Big money to the right buyer. The job will require a few specialists, including a guy who’s up to date on surveillance and alarms. Parker rounds out the crew. Once again, he is not the planner per se, but he is vital to the crime nevertheless.
Firebreak again manages to find a way to be different from previous volumes in the series. Parker would make terrible television, since it is not the same storyline book to book. If these books were intended to be a successful television series, such as Leverage (which openly tips its hat to Stark and Westlake, even going so far as to name one of its thieves Parker) then we would known the formula by now. Parker gets a job (or pulls one off) and then things fall out, leaving Parker trailing after money owed to him. Very few of the books actually take this as the main storyline, though elements of that particular formula show up buried in the beginning, middles or ends of almost every book in the series.
This time around, that sweet paintings score is on hold until Parker gets to the bottom of his current dilemma. In a twist that is perhaps a little more Donald E. Westlake than Richard Stark, the score and the killers are tied together by an electronic lock specialist who happens to be dumb enough to keep sensitive information on his computer. Well, a hack of that system ends up disseminating knowledge Parker would prefer not be disseminated—namely his address and phone number—and it was an open door for anyone with a beef against him to come and collect.
Luckily, Parker has not left many people alive who might have beefs with him. As he delves into the mystery about who hired the hitmen, he discovers that a couple of characters we have squared off against in a previous book are still amongst the quick. Paul Brock and Matt Rosenstein from The Sour Lemon Score did not get bumped off in that book, and at least one of them is eager to get some payback on Parker.
Westlake’s Stark pseudonym is firing on all cylinders, in terms of prose. The sentences are short; the paragraphs, too. The author wastes no words. Instead, he makes great use of spare details to build individual characters and situations. After the fast scams and high speed action of the previous book, Flashfire, Firebreak feels a little luxurious. It starts with a bang and then builds up pressure over time instead of popping like firecrackers.
Although it does not quite feel as rushed as Flashfire, this novel nevertheless speeds along. Parker tracks his opponents down with the verve as he tracked his stolen boodle in his very first novel length adventure, The Hunter. However, here we get the sense of a ticking clock on the window of opportunity for the actual heist. Parker cannot show the single-minded determination to ending Brock and Rosenstein. Instead, he has to keep two irons in his fire. This is rather unusual for Parker.
To this point in the series, Stark/Westlake has shown Parker to be a very focused man. When he is on the score, he does not even think about sex for heaven’s sake. He requires his partners to be as focused as he is. Now, the author puts him in a position he has not really been in before: Parker must multi-task. Needless to say, that it not an easy task for this particular man to perform. Still, when the chips are down, Parker manages to act as needed.
The narrative’s focus on its two storylines is a unique one in this series. Firebreak is as split as its protagonist’s focus. Half the book deals with the heist and its assorted complications while the other half deals with this vendetta from Parker’s past life, but these halves are not quite distinct. There is no clean break in the middle of the book to go from one to the next. Instead, the two storylines weave together almost all the way through the book. Near the end, one storyline ends and the other takes dominance, but the residue of the first is felt throughout like some kind of ghost.
The break in narratives bouncing from one storyline to the next is perhaps best seen in the third section, the one bit of the book taken from other POVs than Parker. Here we see security guards at the compound, individuals from The Sour Lemon Score, and the string. Parker’s presence throughout feels like the thunderclouds arriving, ready to break. He is again a force of nature, a stone cold professional in a world overrun with amateurs and people blinded by their passions.
Long ago, I commented on how the Parker series served as cunning attempts at an ars poetica, books about the writing of books. Firebreak seems like one of these. The idea of multitasking, working on multiple books at a time, is anathema to some authors. Westlake himself was not one of these, as he purportedly worked on the first three Samuel Holt books simultaneously (taking a page from John D. MacDonald’s working method during the heydays of that author’s Travis McGee novels). The popular image of an author is of a Parker-like figure, a lone operator working exhausting hours to finish his job, collect his money, retire on the proceeds for a while before moving on to the next job. Not all authors work that way, of course. Likewise, while most authors do not have hired gunmen chasing them, their careers can be picked and poked at by people from the past. Former agents, so-called “rivals” and editors are human beings who establish relationships, which can end up on bad terms. Those people can show up at odd times, gumming up the gears when least expected. Is any of this necessary for the deeper understanding of a book about a guy being shot at while he tries to steal paintings? Nah. But it’s food for thought, at any rate.
The world in this series has really changed from the days of the earlier works. This shows up in a variety of ways. Money exchanges are less cash and more credit, so that makes picking scores a challenge. Communication structure has shifted. We have more reliance on the Internet, a topic that drives the protagonist of Westlake’s comic caper series crazy—Dortmunder is no fan of progress while his number two Andy Kelp tries to stay closer to the bleeding edge. Of course, Parker is not much of a fan of anything. I cannot easily imagine him following WIRED magazine trends or looking for a bigger, better iPhone.
One major thing I noticed this time around is how limited a presence The Outfit (aka the Mob) makes. In previous works, they were damn near omnipresent. The Mob is no longer even called the Outfit. It makes a brief appearance though not designated as such until later on. It is one more obstacle for Parker to resolve in his mission. It later gets a brief mention as a monetary backer to Brock’s current lifestyle, but even that mention makes them feel like some aging dinosaur waiting for the meteor to end it all.
Brock made his living these days mostly by stealing technology for the mob. He owned a computer shop that made a small profit, he did debugging and other technical things for Cosmopolitan and others, but mostly he was the mob guys’ computer genius, the one that could get them into closed files, find them everything from insider stock market knowledge to FBI surveillance tapes. They paid him well, or they had until now, when, because of Parker, all at once they’d cut him off. So that was the reason to finish Parker himself, if he could. Not for revenge, not anymore, but just to get his livelihood back. (183)
This Outfit is not the powerful organization that figured so heavily in the Parker books. Neither is it the organization that played so prominent a role in the early Westlake novels such as The Cutie. The modern world belongs to the independent contractors. In that way, it would seem that Parker’s war on the Outfit, which carried through his first three novels, ended in his favor after all. I wonder what happened to Karns, the guy Parker put on the Outfit’s North American throne. Dust in the wind, I suppose.
There is no sadness expressed via the prose for the changes in the world, but I feel their lack nevertheless. Parker is a machine, and he is steadily pursuing the same task he always has: Parker is there to take money away from people and institutions. However, one cannot help but see him as a bit of a tragic Wall-E character. Here is a machine whose usefulness was better utilized in a world that has moved on. There will always be scores, but the roles for people like Parker will be far more limited.
Of course, this sadness is probably also amplified by my awareness that only four books remain in this particular series. It’s not a series that would end because Westlake (or his pen name version Richard Stark) would write the final THE END to the character and move on to other characters and books but because the author himself checked out en medias res.
Still, while Firebreak might not be the gripping read that Flashfire was, it is still an engaging work that gives its long time protagonist the opportunity to break his own mold a little and tackles two tasks at once.
Next up in our Considering Westlake reading series is a return to Westlake’s comic capers in a story where Dortmunder faces some Bad News. He and Andy are pulled into a scheme to steal partial ownership of a casino on Native American lands. The score is an easy one, but it is one that does not seem to require a thief. Can our put-upon protagonist find it in himself to ride along on a scam that it’s quite his cup of tea? Bad News is available in an eBook edition. Artifact editions of the paperback and hardcover are pretty easy to locate.
Stark, Richard. Firebreak. Mysterious Press: 2001.
“Considering Westlake: Firebreak” is copyright © 2020 by Daniel R. Robichaud. Quotes and cover image taken from the University of Chicago Press paperback edition, copyright © 2011.
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