Crikey: would you believe it's been over a year since I last posted a Parker Progress Report? Long enough that I expect most Existential Ennui readers – and a good number of Violent World of Parker ones, too – have either forgotten what they are, or weren't even around for the last one (as in, weren't reading Existential Ennui, not weren't born; I've anecdotal and some reasonably scientific evidence – comments and stats, basically – that this blog has picked up a fair few new readers in the interim... although I guess some of those new readers could be babies).
To recap then: since 2010 I've been blogging my way through Donald E. Westlake's twenty-four-book series starring taciturn heister Parker, which were written under the alias Richard Stark (Westlake also wrote four spin-off novels under the Stark alias featuring actor/thief Alan Grofield – those I covered as The Grofield Files). The last proper Parker Progress Report I posted, back in November 2011 – leaving aside this one on the Dortmunder novel Jimmy the Kid, which boasts a Parker meta-cameo – was on the sixteenth Parker, Butcher's Moon, originally published in 1974. So, seeing as January 2013 marks the beginning of what is to all intents and purposes the fiftieth anniversary of Parker, and since there's a new movie based on the nineteenth Parker, Flashfire, due any day now (at least, in the US; it's not out in the UK until March for some reason), I figured I'd try and rattle through the Parker Progress Reports in order to reach that book, starting with the seventeenth Parker, Comeback (1997).
In a way, taking a year-long break between Parkers makes sense: after all, Comeback didn't appear until twenty-three years after Butcher's Moon, although you wouldn't guess that from reading it: the outside world may have changed, but not much has in the Parkerverse. Parker and his girlfriend, Claire, haven't aged, and neither have Parker's irregular cohorts, husband and wife heisting team Ed and Brenda Mackey (there's still no word on how Ed was resurrected having apparently died in Parker #15, Plunder Squad – that won't be addressed until Parker #21, Breakout). In fact the only real nod to change in the book is a mention that it's become harder to find cash scores – harder, but not impossible: the caper this time centres on an evangelical event at a stadium, where cash donations will total half a million dollars.
Structurally, too, things are much as they ever were: like the bulk of its predecessors, the novel is made up of four parts; there's the expected jumping back and forth in time, and the inevitable double-cross – and it won't be a surprise to anyone familiar with the series to this point that that comes courtesy of the man who arranged the robbery, George Liss. Even so, Westlake does have other surprises up his sleeve, notably a new spin on Parker's traditional plan of finding a local hideout after the score, rather than making a run for it – although for me, that doesn't quite work here; the hideout is a little too close to the stadium for it to be believable – and Parker posing as an insurance man and winding up in a hospital teeming with cops.
Still, to my mind, there's something missing from the book – that raw, searing intensity that the best Parkers – The Hunter, The Score, The Seventh – possess. There are some great scenes, some diverting business, but the novel never really coalesces or comes fully to life. That could be a consequence of the way it was written – in fits and starts over a twenty-plus year period, as Westlake explained in this 1997 interview by Jesse Sublett. Or maybe he just needed time to warm up. Either way, the next Parker novel, Backflash (1998), was written much faster, the way Westlake usually penned the Parkers, and for my money it's a better book – something I'll be exploring in the next Parker Progress Report.