BACKFLASH by Richard Stark (Donald E Westlake)
(Yes, the cover really does cut off the publisherâ€™s name at the bottom)
Review by Mike Dennis, 2010
“We live and learn.” That’s what Parker says to an adversary immediately before shooting him point blank in the eye.
They don’t come much tougher than Parker, and he’s his usual hardass self in the muscular 1998 novel, Backflash, by Richard Stark.
After walking away from a heist with $140,000, he plans to take it easy for awhile, laying up with Claire, his longtime lover, in someone else’s summer cottage amid the woods of upstate New York. But of course, he can’t stay out of action for long, or there would be no series.
He’s approached by Hilliard Cathman, former state government employee turned consultant, to do a job. It seems a new gambling boat will soon be unveiled, slated to cruise along the Hudson River. Cathman has the blueprints of the boat, as well as security details, schedules, locations of the safes, and all the things a man would need to hijack a cash-bloated gambling ship. The only thing missing is the team to do it.
Problem is, Parker isnâ€™t sure he wants to take this job. It seems the only way to rob the ship is to do so while itâ€™s cruising. That means getting back to shore with the money, and that means too much exposure in the middle of the river. Heâ€™s also suspicious of Cathman himself. Why would this guy, an obscure lifelong bureaucrat, suddenly want to organize a major armed robbery?
Of course, Parker eventually agrees to the job, but not before he figures out an extremely devious solution to the money/exposure problem. He rounds up his usual assortment of criminal types and they set about plotting the robbery in a very matter-of-fact, professional manner. But heâ€™s still plenty uneasy about Cathman.
Starkâ€™s pacing in these Parker novels is always letter perfect, with the plot only slowing down long enough for the character to catch his breath or to contemplate his next move. These moments are usually tinged with suspense, as in a tense scene on the ship immediately before the robbery.
The entire novel takes place in Albany and other smaller towns along the Hudson, and Stark gives the reader an excellent sense of place. Although these locales arenâ€™t that far away from New York City, they still feel like the middle of nowhere, worlds away, which is exactly how Parker wants it. Less of a problem with witnesses that way.
Backflash is an excellent entry in the long-running Parker series. Beneath all the planning and execution of the heist, thereâ€™s a convincing unapologetic defense of the code of criminal justice as meted out by criminals.