Every other year or so I decide to read a book from the straight-up crime genre. This time, it was probably because I’d recently read Graham Greene’s The Human Factor, which followed the interior excitations of a British double agent pursued (until the final scenes, psychologically) by his patriot employers. Knowing next to nothing about the legacy of noir lit, and not wanting to scour its history, I took a flyer on a plug from a comment on a crime novel blog: Richard Stark’s Backflash, from 1998.
Stark was a pseudonym of Donald E. Westlake. Making Balzac look like a constipated, somnolent, fastidious follower of Flaubert, Westlake pumped out over a hundred novels, about twenty-five of them from the Stark brand, and about twenty of those in a series whose lead character, Parker, schemes and tricks and blasts his way to depressing glory through the grubby particulars (in Backflash) of a riverboat heist. This anti-heroic, weary, shithead protagonist is supposed to garner respect, if not sympathy. Like any of the other characters, he’s two-dimensional, and the dimensions are grey and brown. Parker has the charm of a loose dental dam, so the clipped, professional banter doesn’t reveal anything interesting about the thug, but acts simply as a way to push the plot along like an overwhelmed paramedic shifting a heart attack victim on a gurney over a busy beach sidewalk. There’s one segment, featuring unfunny but interesting dialogue, where Parker and one of his aides banter off-topic about inconsequential issues while waiting for reinforcements during an intense half-hour or so. I subsequently learned that Quentin Tarantino got his famous dialogue schtick (with the two too-cool-for-school, wisecracking, violent cops) in Pulp Fiction from Westlake/Stark. Then again, I also learned (a few years ago) that he got it from Charles Willeford. At any rate, Stark’s wit is pedestrian and repetitively signaled, which just goes to show that an idea’s originator is often poor at executing it to any positive renown.
I guess the drill for enthusiastic readers centres on plot, plot, and more plot. Oh, and suspense. The novel checks those boxes moderately well, but as for writing, characterization, ideas ... well, it’s traditional crime fiction, and the best authors of the genre know how to operate the Pavlovian machine to page-turning rhapsody.