Saturday, October 26, 2013

Starktober 24: Firebreak

As Terry Treachout notes in his introduction, Firebreak has the best first line of any Parker novel, and one of the very best of all time: "When the phone rang, Parker was in the garage, killing a man." Stark did many things well, but one of the most important was knowing exactly how to grip the reader from the beginning and not let go.

Some years ago, somewhere else, I noted that the late Parker novels were set in small, forgotten industrial cities, places where it might as well have been still the '60s and where Parker could still operate as if it was. I implied that, though wonderful and gripping, the modern stretch of Parker books was essentially an extended period piece.

I was wrong.

In ways small and large, Firebreak is both entirely of its time -- the tech-bust days of early 2001 -- and clearly and deeply tied to the previous Parker novels. This is the book where Stark squares the circle, stating almost baldly that 1969's The Sour Lemon Score happened about a decade before this novel about the theft of an Internet billionaire's secret stash of stolen Old Masters. (One minor character had three young children in Sour Lemon; the oldest was then ten. They're all in college in Firebreak.)

Firebreak also sees Parker incorporate a computer expert into a string for the first time, and that expert, Larry Lloyd, is almost completely non-embarrassing a decade later, in sharp distinction to most of the hackers and crackers that suddenly infested mystery fiction and movies around the turn of the millennium. And when Lloyd is embarrassing, it's entirely because he's new to the heisting life, alternately overeager and overemotional, and the reader wonders alongside Parker if he's going to make it to the end of the job or not.

As usual with Parker, that job isn't as discrete and contained as he'd like it to be: Lloyd is on parole, for attempted murder on the partner who stole his tech start-up. The other two men in the string are under time pressure; they need to pay off two other former partners to let the latter skip their own parole on an arrest from the prior attempt to rob that Internet billionaire. And Parker still has those killers on his back trail, which lead him through a mob-fronted company in Bayonne, New Jersey before leading back to some thought-dead old enemies from the Sour Lemon days.

But it wouldn't be a Parker job without complications and last-minute changes to the plan. Parker and his string do make it to that billionaire's secret stash of paintings, in a rural hunting lodge near the Canadian border. Then, they just have to evade the best security a billionaire can buy, plus the attention of several kinds of Feds, to get their priceless cargo away safely and turn it into cash.

How do they do it? Brilliantly.

Starktober Introduction and Index

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