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Onyx reviews: Flashfire by Richard Stark

Parker is a cold-blooded, incorrigible thief who does not flinch at murder to settle a score. He has no sympathy for the victims of his crimes and little for anyone who gets caught in the crossfire.

There is an entire subgenre of crime fiction where the protagonist is a criminal. This is hard to pull off, because the average reader is not going to have much sympathy with or liking for a guy who would steal everything of value from someone's house just to finance his other illegal operations. Most writers who venture down this dark road offset the natural repulsion for a leading criminal by injecting large doses of humor into the story. With a wink and a nudge, the writer says, "See, he's not such a bad guy after all."

Richard Stark, a pen name used by Donald E. Westlake, does not provide such relief. Parker (played with comedic intent by Mel Gibson in the recent movie Payback) is tough, antisocial, lethal and deadly serious.

Flashfire starts with Parker and a trio of co-conspirators in the midst of committing a robbery. Parker is seen casually lobbing a Molotov cocktail through the window of a convenience store to provide a diversion as his colleagues rob a bank.

When the take proves to be less than expected, Parker's partners in crime offer him only one-tenth of his share. The rest, they say, is needed to finance an even bigger heist in Palm Beach. Parker who knows Palm Beach, knows how tightly the island resort community can be zippered up by the police, wants nothing to do with their plan.

Unfortunately, he is outnumbered and left behind with the promise that the rest of his share will be forthcoming when the second job is done.

Parker is not the kind of man to take this kind of treatment lying down. He becomes his own one-man crime spree as he meanders across the country, accumulating enough money to finance his revenge on his ex-partners. The fact that he easily acquires far more money on this binge than is owed to him never occurs to him. It's not about the money—it's about honor among thieves.

Well, maybe it is about the money—there is a lot of it at stake. The Palm Beach job involves jewelry worth over twelve million dollars. Even at a dime on the dollar, the proceeds from this caper would be over a million and Parker plans to walk away with all of it.

While creating a new identity to use in Palm Beach, Parker runs afoul of a crime lord who is using the same identity merchant. The crime lord does not want anyone to remember who he used to be, including the man who provided him with the false papers and background. Including Parker, who was in the wrong place at the wrong time.

In Palm Beach, Parker quickly becomes enmeshed in a complicated dance between his former partners, the local police, a steady stream of hit men, and an accidental accomplice in the form of a real estate agent who smells in Parker her chance to get away from her going-nowhere life.

Stark's novels are all about plot. The characters are thinly but clearly drawn. They are rarely described physically but the reader comes away with a strong sense of who they are at what motivates them. It is a testimony to Stark's skill that he is able to get the audience to enthusiastically cheer for Parker in spite of the fact that he is a scoundrel without any redemptive characteristics.

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