Book Review: 'Firebreak' by Richard Stark

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WASHINGTON, Feb. 25 (UPI) -- Donald Westlake's latest crime thriller reads like a literary thrill ride. It is full of ups and downs, twists, turns, surprises, and, by the time you close the back cover, you're out of breath and spent.

"Firebreak" (Mysterious Press, 297 pages, $23.95) is the latest in the stunningly successful series of books written by Westlake under the pen name Richard Stark about a thief named Parker.


That's it -- Parker. If anyone other than Westlake knows his first name, they haven't lived long enough to repeat it.

First introduced to the public in 1962 in what was supposed to be "a one off" -- a publishing term for a self-contained story not intended to be part of a series -- Parker appeared in 17 novels before, as Westlake puts it, "I lost the voice."

It took him 26 years to find it but in 1997 Westlake brought Parker back in the appropriately named "Comeback," which had Parker fighting off the mob while planning a hit on the cash room of a televangical religious service.


As "Firebreak" opens Parker is killing a man he does not know.

"When the phone rang, Parker was in the garage, killing a man. His knees pressed down on the interloper's back, his hands clasped around his forehead. He heard the phone ring, distantly, in the house, as he jerked his forearms; heard the neck snap; heard the phone's second ring, cut off, as Claire answered somewhere in the house."

Episodes of sudden violence are a hallmark of the series as are the colorfully drawn characters, most of them sinister and duplicitous, whom Parker encounters.

The caper in "Firebreak" involves a plot to steal art treasures from a secret room inside the Montana hunting lodge of a Bill Gates-like Internet and computer billionaire. That his cohorts discovered the paintings in a prior break in at the lodge complicates the process, creating the need to bring Parker, an expert planner, into the scheme.

The Internet figures prominently in the plan as well as in Firebreak's sub-plot, which brings Parker back in touch with enemies from a prior book who must be dealt with before the Montana caper can be pulled off.

In the age of the politically correct mystery and suspense story, Parker is a pleasant throwback to the pulp novels of the late '50s that foreshadowed the phenomena of social alienation that dominated the '60s and early '70s.


As a rule, mystery novels and crime thrillers do not usually lend themselves to an exploration of deeper meanings. Westlake's Parker books are an important exception to that in the tradition of Jim Thompson, Lawrence Block's Matthew Scudder books and the Travis McGee series written by John D. MacDonald. These books are as much about life in America as they are about crime.

Parker moves in a shadow world, bound only by his own code. He has few if any real friends, only allies who may become enemies at the drop of an ill-gotten dollar. Time and again, Westlake demonstrates the treachery that exists between thieves in a powerful fashion.

"Flashfire," the novel immediate prior to "Firebreak" in the series, has Parker on the trail of cohorts from a heist who refused to give him his share of the loot from a bank robbery. His partners want to use the cash as seed money for a different and larger heist, but this is of no importance to Parker, who wants nothing to do with them after the initial robbery.

Parker makes them pay dearly for their deceit.

Likewise, the themes of revenge, survival and the notions of a criminal's code of behavior play out in Firebreak, again with stunning violence. Confronting the men who have "dealt themselves in" to the effort to kill Parker, he acts coldly and swiftly:


"Meany went in first, then Arthur, then Parker, who stepped to his left. As the bandaged guy came in, Parker took out the Beretta, stuck it against the guy's ear and fired. The sound was like a cough from a lion's cage.

"Before the body could fall, Parker stepped in to clasp it around the chest with his left arm, while his right hand dropped the Beretta on the floor and went to that hip holster the guy had reached for earlier. He came out with a snub-nosed .32 thumb, finding the safety, and stepped back, holding the body close, as the others all turned to gape at him. Meany, disbelieving, cried, 'What did you do?'"

Parker has no regrets for this. He killed the man simply to make a point to the people who were trying to kill him.

Firebreak is an exciting work from master craftsman of the genre that fans of the mystery thriller will not want to miss.

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