It is a basic truth, I guess, that villains are more intriguing than heroes. Villains are indispensable; you need them to give the heroes something to be good against. The more evil and diabolical and smart the villain, the better the hero looks when he ultimately triumphs.
Richard Stark, the dark pseudonym of Donald Westlake, has written with FLASHFIRE 23 books about Parker. Parker is a career criminal who is about as villainous as they come. He is totally amoral and functions in a world of fluid rigidity. He has a very strict, uncompromising code of behavior. At the same time he is very adaptable: he does whatever he needs to do to get him what he wants and to keep him alive and out of jail. This, of course, includes murder.
Stark does not suffer from logorrhea; his prose is sharp, spare and to the point. It does not coddle you or cuddle you or remind you of cute little animals. It does what the best writing does, which is to tell the reader eve rything that needs to be told while moving the story along at a cruising speed of 500 m.p.h. FLASHFIRE is no exception. It opens with Parker involved in a successful heist-for-hire with three men whom he hardly knows. When it is over, and it is time to divide the money, Parker is told by his three partners, at gunpoint, that the robbery was committed to finance a much bigger heist and that he has become an involuntary investor in the project. Longtime readers of Parker know what is going to happen: Parker is going to kill his erstwhile partners, after they pull off the second heist, and take all of the money. This outcome is preordained, from the second that the three men walk away, leaving Parker living and breathing but taking his share of the money.
However, nothing ever can be anticipated in a Parker novel. Even when the reader has a pretty good idea of where Stark is going, it is always a surprise to see how he gets there. And anything at all can happen. I wouldn't be at all surprised to one day open a new Parker novel and read of his demise on the very last page. You never know.
Stephen King has described Richard Stark's Parker novels as a Ph.D. in crime. I can think of no better description. Stark can put more into a simple paragraph than many authors in any genre can put into an entire novel. And FLASHFIRE is no exception, with prose and plot to keep you on the edge of your seat long after you've read the last page. Put the book on your most accessible shelf --- it simply gets no better than this.
Reviewed by Joe Hartlaub on November 1, 2000