Breakout

Breakout

Breakout is the 21st book of the “Parker” series, by Donald Westlake (writing as Richard Stark). If you’ve never read any Parker novels, I recommend that you start with the first one, The Hunter, and proceed from there. Few books capture the intensity and drama of criminal shadow ops as realistically as these. Parker is a professional thief, but he’s no non-violent cat burglar, stealthily infiltrating buildings, cracking safes and getting away cleanly with the loot. He threatens, pistol-whips, beats, binds, gags, and occasionally kills to complete his missions, but always with an almost robotic level of efficiency and cool.

Parker novels are what you might call “criminal procedurals”—they give detailed, realistic accounts of the planning and execution of Parker’s heists and associated criminal activity. We learn about the minutia of getaway routes, entrances and exits, guards, escape vehicles, etc. Parker prefers low-tech, direct means to assault his targets, never relying on gadgetry when good old guns, threats and surprise are so much more reliable. But as in real life, nothing ever goes according to plan; much of the fun of these stories is finding out how Parker improvises when an op goes badly wrong or someone crosses him.

Breakout offers a new twist on the Parker formula: this time he has to break out of a facility instead of in—the facility in question being a prison, where he finds himself for the first time since the series began. Parker, being a guy who doesn’t take well to involuntary confinement, and being linked to the murder of a prison guard decades ago, immediately starts angling to escape. Recruiting two other inmates and with help from outside, he makes a harrowing but highly believable escape. And that’s just part one of this tale. The crew, now free and short of cash, decides to take on a heist that one of them had previously scoped out: breaking into a former armory loaded with jewelry that is as impregnable as the prison they just got out of. The ensuing break-in is as gripping as the break-out; author Stark describes both in such photographic detail that you could swear he has done them himself! There are further escapes, evasions, murders, police procedural work, hostage-taking, and a climactic manhunt for Parker the fugitive. The ending is particularly well done.

After reading five early Parker novels from the 1960s, it’s a bit jarring to read about him operating in a 21st century world of cell phones, internet and security cameras. But as always, Parker adapts to his circumstances and relies on the tried-and-true methods of his trade, so it doesn’t really affect the narrative. Forty years after the first novel, Westlake is still the master of hard-boiled crime fiction, and Parker is still the master of hard-boiled crime. “Breakout” is a top-notch addition to the best crime series ever written. Highly recommended.

Buy a copy of Breakout here.

Splinter Cell

Splinter Cell

Splinter Cell, the first in a series of novels based on the popular stealth video game, has an  intriguing premise: an ultra-secret NSA division called Third Echelon employs agents called “Splinter Cells” to infiltrate enemy installations, spy, steal, sabotage and assassinate to protect American interests.

The protagonist is Sam Fisher, a highly competent loner who has little apparent personality or life beyond his government work and his Krav Maga practice. Fisher employs an array of impressive gadgetry, including a suit that regulates body temperature, makes no sound and resists bullets, and a device called an OPSAT that did in the early 2000s what smartphones do today, but with high security, global satellite coverage and a direct line to NSA HQ. Fisher is also a master of stealth and shadow warfare—basically a 21st century ninja. He can pick any lock in seconds, scale walls and climb ropes with the best of them, evade capture, blow up buildings and take people out with his bare hands. But therein lies the problem: Fisher is a little too good, and everything comes a little too easy for him. He’s like Nick Carter—a superman spy who never seems to have a major mishap or encounter any obstacle he can’t overcome.

This first installment concerns the machinations of a SPECTRE-like cabal of arms dealers called “the Shop” that is targeting Splinter Cells for death, having already murdered two agents and set their sights on Fisher. They are also sponsoring a very nasty Islamic terrorist outfit called “the Shadows” (not to be confused with the group I’ve blogged about) that is spreading al Qaeda-style mayhem.  Fisher is sent to the Middle East to track both organizations down and destroy their operations. This involves using his stealth skills to infiltrate various offices and bases, gather incriminating information, blow up their assets and take out any bad guys who cross his path. Unfortunately, the Shop ups the ante by kidnapping his daughter, and this really motivates Fisher and puts him hot on their trail.

Author “David Michaels” is actually Raymond Benson, who was the official author of the James Bond series from 1996 to 2003. His writing is perfectly functional but not terribly inspired—he’s certainly no Ian Fleming, and Sam Fisher is no James Bond. Benson was the hired writing help here, not the series creator, and it shows. Fans of the video game or Clancy techno-thrillers who are intrigued by the premise may enjoy this book, but I found it all a bit predictable and by the numbers. Splinter Cell offers neither shadow op realism, gripping narrative, interesting characters, nor wild entertainment of the sort you find in classic men’s adventure fiction. Give it a pass unless you have nothing better to read.

Buy a copy of Splinter Cell here.