Friday 11 January 2013

Parker Progress Report: Backflash (1998, Parker #18) by Richard Stark, alias Donald E. Westlake

NB: A version of this post also appears on The Violent World of Parker. Featured as one of this week's Friday's Forgotten Books.

In the previous Parker Progress Report – my overarching title for my continuing blogging journey through Donald E. "Richard Stark" Westlake's twenty-four book series starring taciturn heister Parker – I took a look at the seventeenth Parker, Comeback (1997), originally published twenty-three years after the sixteenth Parker, Butcher's Moon (1974). Luckily, Parker fans didn't have quite so long to wait for the next book in the series: Backflash arrived just one year later, in 1998.

Clearly, Westlake was back in the Parker groove; where Comeback had taken him twenty years to write (on and off... mostly off), now he was writing the Parkers fast again: a new one would appear every year or two until the author's death in 2008. Whether that's why Backflash is a better book than Comeback – which, to my mind, it is – I don't know, but it's at least notable that that's the way Westlake wrote the Parkers in the original 1962-1974 run.

And actually, as with Comeback, Backflash could quite easily have slotted into that original run. It starts with a "When"; it's divided into four parts; and Parker's cohorts all hail from earlier books: racetrack driver Mike Carlow from The Rare Coin Score and Butcher's Moon; stout, fastidious expat Lou Sternberg and female heister (heistess? With the meistess?) Noelle Braselle from Plunder Squad; and professional wrestler Dan Wycza from The Score and Butcher's Moon – in the latter of which, like Comeback's Ed Mackey, Wycza seemingly came back from the dead. Although we never actually witnessed Wycza's death in the first place – Parker merely reports it in The Rare Coin Score with a perfunctory "He's dead", while Westlake heralds his resurrection in Backflash with an equally perfunctory, "There was a rumor he was dead for a while, but then he'd popped up again". And the score is classic Parker too; novel, sure – Parker and co. take down a floating casino on the Hudson River – but a straight cash grab nonetheless. Mind you, straight doesn't necessarily equate to straightforward: the heist itself goes as planned, but as is often the way in a Parker story, the aftermath gets bloody.

There's a belief among some Parker fans that the later books, and Parker in particular, are somehow softer than the earlier ones – that Westlake and his most famous creation mellowed with age. Frankly, I see little evidence of it here. From Parker's blunt assessment of a co-heister's condition following a car crash at the start of the book ("You're fucked") to his cold, calculating tying off of a – all-too-human – loose end in the latter stages, he's as heartless – and ruthless – as he's ever been.

The odd mishap aside, traditionally Parker has usually only killed when absolutely necessary: to protect himself, his money, his moll (Claire), or, and perhaps most importantly of all, his rep. And so it is in Backflash. That said, and to counter the "humanising" argument, I think it's possible to detect something new in his dispatching of his nemesis at the end of Backflash – an even deeper chill. Parker's never been a (movie) James Bond, dispensing terminally unfunny quips as he offs not-quite-as-bad-as-he-is guys, but he has proffered the occasional one-liner, perhaps the best being "Now you're the message" in Butcher's Moon. As menacing as that is, though, his closing one in Backflash strikes me as being even colder, simply because of the distracted, offhand manner in which it's delivered. With his adversary gut-shot and writhing in agony at his feet, Parker reflects on the act of mercy at the start of the novel which ultimately led him to this point. Ignoring the guy's "panting and spitting out words", Parker muses, "We live and learn", and shoots him in the eye.

Of course, having made the same merciful mistake with George Uhl in The Sour Lemon Score (Parker #12) and consequently paid the price in Plunder Squad (Parker #15), you'd have thought that's one lesson Parker might have taken to heart by now. If only he had one.

Next – the basis for the imminent Taylor Hackford/Jason Statham Parker movie: Flashfire.

Wednesday 9 January 2013

Parker Progress Report: Comeback (1997, Parker #17) by Richard Stark, alias Donald E. Westlake

NB: A version of this post also appears on The Violent World of Parker.

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.

Monday 7 January 2013

William Boyd's Restless (Bloomsbury, 2006), the 2012 BBC TV Adaptation, and Ian McEwan's Sweet Tooth (Jonathan Cape, 2012)

Enough with the procrastinatory obfuscation; time to get back into blogging proper, with a 2006 historical espionage novel I was inspired to read last autumn as a result of reading a 2012 historical espionage novel:

Restless by William Boyd, published by Bloomsbury in hardback in the UK in 2006, and bought in first edition by me in Bookworms in Shoreham last summer. Now, my original plan, when I read Restless, had been to read Boyd's most recent novel, Waiting for Sunrise, which was published by Bloomsbury in June of 2012, and which I showcased in signed first in August. But then I went and bought a signed first of this:

Ian McEwan's Sweet Tooth, published by Jonathan Cape not long after Waiting for Sunrise, and dove into that instead. Unfortunately it proved to be a disappointment – at least for me – both as a spy story and as a novel: Serena, the narrator, is a pretty rubbish secret agent, not to mention a rather dreary sort altogether, and though the final reveal does offer an explanation for that, it was all a little too tricksy and self-satisfied for my liking, and ultimately pointless, even given the meta trappings (which are undermined by the presumed complicity of Serena anyway). So, having enjoyed William Boyd's 2009 thriller Ordinary Thunderstorms, and knowing that Restless was, like Sweet Tooth, ostensibly a historical spy novel, I figured I'd give that a go, reasoning that it might act as a kind of palate cleanser (I know: bit weird, but that's how my mind works). And I'm glad I did, because not only did it turn out to be a cracking read – so much so that it ended up in my top ten books I read in 2012 chart – but a few months later, at the end of December, the BBC broadcast a two-part television drama based on the novel, adapted by Boyd himself.

And a pretty good fist he made of it as well, as did director Edward Hall and stars Hayley Atwell – playing Russian-born British World War II spy Eva Delectorskaya – and Rufus Sewell as Eva's handler, Lucas Romer. There's some stilted dialogue, especially early on, but once it gets going the TV Restless does a terrific job translating the subterfuge and set pieces of the novel, notably one exciting sequence where Eva is dispatched by Romer to Holland to witness the supposed defection of a German agent (an episode Boyd based on the real-life Venlo Incident).

Where the adaptation falls down slightly is in its treatment of Eva's daughter, Ruth Gilmartin. The novel alternates between Eva's WWII adventures, which are written in the third person, and Ruth's first-person recollection of the long hot summer of 1976, when her mother revealed to her that she was a spy during the war. Boyd spends quite a bit of time establishing Ruth's character and fleshing out her life: her friendly and amusing relationship with her professor at Cambridge and with the students to whom she teaches English (one of whom becomes infatuated by her); her fraught relationship with her estranged German lover (and his brother), the father of her child. In the adaptation, however, much of this excised – probably to keep the running time down to three hours, which I guess is fair enough (although why Ruth's professor becomes German in the TV version is beyond me); except that as a consequence, the strong, willful, warm Ruth of the novel is reduced to little more than a way of keeping the plot moving.

Still, if you haven't seen the television Restless, don't let that put you off: it has much to recommend it... just not quite as much as the book is all.