The Comeback by Donald Westlake writing as Richard Stark

Existential Ennui: Westlake Score: Comeback, by Richard Stark (Robert Hale, 2001)

If you like crime fiction, it is a guarantee that you will go bonkers over “Comeback,” the 17th Parker novel, published in 1997 after a 23 year hiatus following “Butcher’s Moon” in 1974. It is tightly written, professionally engineered masterpiece of crime fiction. Whatever rough edges could be found in the original Parker novels written in the 1960’s and early 1970’s, those edges are gone. This is a smoothly-written, master-crafted work of art. If you have not read any Parker novels before, be forewarned that it is one of the most addictive things ever invented. You will want to pick up one Parker novel just as soon as you finish the last one. It’s simply crazy the way it works.

Parker in this one is working with Ed and Brenda Mackey and George Liss and they have a whopper of a stunt to pull off. The Right Reverend William Archibald is taking his prayer show on the road across America from stadium to stadium. The sinners on their true path to forgiveness each are contributing twenty dollars in cash at the door plus more as the pot is passed around. When the arena is filled, the dollars just add up big, estimated at about $400,000. “Even in a world of electronic cash transfers and credit cards and money floating in cyberspace, there were still heists out there, waiting to be collected.” There is an inside man part of the evangelism team, but he got involved while on parole and now he has soured seeing the man at the top collect and collect and collect.

It is a smooth, flawless heist – well, almost flawless. The inside man is nervous and panicking. There is a falling out among thieves and a betrayal. There are others riding Parker’s coattails and waiting to pick off the loot.

It is one hell of a story and you can add a few more to the list of unforgettable characters that Stark (Westlake) has dreamed up. It has a few points of view in addition to Parker’s. The reverend is hysterical, ensconced in his penthouse hotel suite with an ash-blonde “harlot” who was the only woman in the reverend’s experience “to overflow her birthday suit.” Tina “was a lush girl,” but “it was a lushness that could spill into overripeness.” The reverend’s other confidante is Dwayne, an ex-marine that ran security for these prayer events and was the reverend’s chief of staff. He is tasked with the smooth running of the William Archibald crusade and he applies his marines philosophy to the task: “Don’t ask why, only ask how.” The inside guy is Carmody and he is not built for this task. He is bent out of shape with a discouraged slope of his shoulders and a fatalistic half-grip of his hands. To Dwayne, this only means one thing: “A fellow bent on desertion.” Dwayne also describes another involved party as “Beetle Bailey without the comedy, a sad sack who would always be in the wrong place at the wrong time.”

The story is also filled with sage advice such as that “Relaxed guys are harder to fool, but tensed-up guys are harder to read.”

I am not sure how you decide which is the best of the Parker novels, but this one is right up there with the best.

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