Review: The Dame


It was rare for Grofield to be the innocent bystander, and he didn’t much like it.  When he was guilty, as he frequently was, he was exclusively guilty of well-planned and well-executed major robberies with a cast of perhaps five or six, where most of the details and most of the potential results were already counted on within the plan.  If the plan were to go sour–as sometimes even the best-laid plans did–it would nevertheless do so within a perimeter of the known.  Grofield would know how to act.   More important, he would know how to react.

But here he was in the middle of somebody else’s story.  To take a simile from his second profession, he had been miscast.  Not only that, he’d been thrust onstage without even knowing his lines.

Who was reading the Grofield novels, back when they were first coming out?   I’d love to know.  As you can see above, they were published in a variety of places, often in translation.  We can fairly assume many were fans of the Parker novels, who had met Grofield there and wanted to see what he got up to when Parker wasn’t around–but the Grofields are so different from the Parkers, in both style and content, it’s likely they developed their own readership–probably much smaller.   Or else Grofield would have likely shared a publisher with Parker, which he never did, at least not as a soloist.

He began as Parker’s sidekick, at Pocket Books.  His first three solo outings were with MacMillan; his last at World Publishing.  He missed out on the Gold Medal era of Parker entirely, and ended his days at Random House, appearing in two of the Parkers published there.

But such is the elusive transitory nature of Grofield, his first two books were what you might call a two-part sequel to The Handle, a Parker novel published by Pocket.  Though sequel isn’t really the right word–sidetrack, really.   Detour.  Grofield tends to keep straying from the point.  Maybe that is the point.  He is, after all, a Westlake character who somehow got born into the world of Richard Stark.   And never quite seemed to belong there.   He finally jumped ship entirely, but we’ll talk about that later.

We’ve already looked at The Damsel, which I found on rereading to be an interesting but unsatisfactory experiment–Westlake trying to write as Richard Stark while spinning a farcical swashbuckling tale of foreign intrigue and romance–not really Stark’s bag, and it comes across as a failed attempt to blend two very different approaches to storytelling.   Not without its moments, but very weak tea compared to any of the Parker novels, or indeed most of Westlake’s work under his own name, or as Tucker Coe.

I’ve also mentioned Westlake’s criticism of the Daniel Port novels of Peter Rabe, one of his favorite writers.  Port was a series character, who like so many others (including Parker and Grofield) wasn’t originally intended to be one.   According to Rabe, he just came along at the right time, and having survived the first book (as most of Rabe’s heroes did not), he got to be in five more.

And each was a bit different from the one before it–how much of this was by conscious intent of the author, and how much was just him groping around for the right approach, I have no idea, but based on his own comments, probably more the latter.  Port started out in a story about organized crime and corrupt machine politics (Dig My Grave Deep), which ends with him fleeing that world, and going on the road.  Then he got involved in a heist story (The Out is Death), very fatalistic and dark, and not entirely consistent with the bio of the character we’d already been given.

In the third book (It’s My Funeral) he’s suddenly in Hollywood working as a P.I. (even though he isn’t one);  helping a movie starlet, dating a singer, and it’s all very lightweight and comedic–rather Shell Scott, and since everybody was reading those Richard Prather novels back then, that was very likely intentional–in his essay on Rabe, Westlake suggests it’s a pastiche of Leslie Charteris’ stories about The Saint, and that may well be true, but I just can’t see Simon Templar being quite this goofy.   Maybe the style is Charteris, but the substance, such as it is, seems more Prather-esque to me.

Bring Me Another Corpse is a mob thriller that links back to the first book, and is probably the weakest of the bunch.   The Cut of the Whip is a western noir, set in the Texas oil country (Jim Thompson territory), with a love interest who fairly begs to be played by Faith Domergue.  And Time Enough to Die, which Rabe and Westlake both thought was the best of the bunch, is a south of the border adventure story with a touch of espionage.   By the time it wraps up, Port seems to have at long last found love with a Mexican woman who is every bit his equal (that’s probably underrating her), and I’d say it’s just as well for Port that’s where it all ended.  Lord only knows where he’d have turned up next.  Shanghai?  Timbuktu?

Whether he’d originally intended this or not, Rabe used Port to explore different types of story within the overall genre he was working in.  But Port was never a terribly well-defined character, and he had enormous motivation problems–he just seems to be wandering for the sake of wandering, helping people for the sake of helping them.   It’s like The Fugitive, only he’s not running from anybody, except maybe himself.  And Rabe, for all his remarkable strengths as a writer, didn’t know the mystery genre in all its permutations the way Donald Westlake did.  Few ever have.

Still, Westlake could have looked at the books and seen the germ of an idea–a free-floating protagonist, jack-of-all trades, who flits from one setting to another, improvising his way through.  A chance to experiment with form, to take each sub-genre apart and find out what makes it tick.  By the time of his second appearance in The Handle, Grofield was already a far more interesting character than Port ever was.  Maybe what didn’t work with Port would suit Grofield, the actor (accustomed to quick changes), very well indeed.

And if not, what’s four books to a guy who ultimately wrote over a hundred?   When you’re Donald Westlake, you can afford to venture down the odd cul-de-sac, just to see where it ends.

The Dame picks up right where The Damsel left off (and echoes it in ways other than the choice of title).  Grofield, still in Mexico, has finished saying a long sexy goodbye to Elly Fitzgerald, his companion from the previous book, who is not only okay with him going back to his wife Mary (the Penelope in this hardboiled Odyssey), but actually offers to take Grofield’s share of the loot from the Cockaigne heist back to Mary for him–Grofield worries about what Mary will think about an attractive young blonde showing up bearing money from her long-absent husband, and Elly says she’ll wear support stockings, so Mary will feel sorry for her.  Just in case anybody thought this was going to be an exercise in literary realism.

The reason Grofield can’t bring the money back himself is that he’s gotten a message from General Pozos, the military dictator of Guerrero, one of Westlake’s many fictional countries.   Grofield had just helped Elly save the General’s life, and the General had reciprocated by helping him with traveling papers, so he can get back home, but now Pozos seems to think he’s got a job Grofield would be interested in.  Not for him, but for somebody else Grofield doesn’t even know.

Grofield doesn’t need the money–he’s got enough cash to fund his theater for a year or so, and it’s stupid for a heister to work more than he has to (which Parker said was a problem of Grofield’s).  But he’s curious.  The job is in Puerto Rico.  It’s not that far away.   Why not go check it out?  What could happen?   Thinks the guy who in just the last few weeks has been shot multiple times during a casino heist, then dragged into an assassination plot involving mobsters and a former governor.  Let’s just say that Daniel Port isn’t the only series character who has motivation problems sometimes.

Grofield goes, I guess you could say, because he’s an actor, and actors can’t afford to pass up jobs too often.  But really, he’s going because there’s no story if he doesn’t.   Honestly, part of me thinks I’d have rather seen what happened when Elly met Mary–do support stockings really elicit sympathy from jealous wives?   But we aren’t going to see Mary again until the very last book in this series (and she’s worth the wait).

So he ventures off to lovely Puerto Rico, a setting Westlake used quite often (Parker and Claire were vacationing in San Juan just recently), presumably because he spent a deal of time there, escaping the northern winter, like thousands of half-frozen Gotham gringos are doing right now (would I were among them).

Like The Damsel before it (and our next book as well), this book reads like a sardonic travelogue, genuinely admiring the beauty of a foreign clime, while still far from blind to its drawbacks.   Mr. Westlake did love the tropics–though I must note, few of his best books take place in them.   Still, no writer can be blamed for combining business with pleasure–taking mental notes while he travels, storing up ideas and settings for future books.

Grofield rents a car, and follows his directions to an isolated house in the countryside, where a good-looking 40-ish woman named Belle Danamato turns out to be his prospective employer–and the job is no good.  She’s clearly in fear of somebody–the house and its grounds are filled with armed men, and one German Shepherd, who gazes longingly at Grofield’s throat.  It turns out Belle wants Grofield to guard her body when she goes out, and to do other things to her body when she’s at home.  It’s a nice enough body, but it’s not his kind of job, and her domineering attitude rubs him the wrong way.

He walks out on her, and then gets picked up by a different group of armed men (one of whom seems to be very gay, and he’s the most dangerous one), who want to know why he’s there.  He tells them.  They take his rental car (mainly just to be pissy about it), and he has to walk back to the house, and spend the night there.  Before he does so, he disarms Belle’s main security guy, and points his gun right at her, demanding an apology, which she gives him–grudgingly.  Actors.  So temperamental.

At dinner, he meets her house guests, who consist of Onum Marba, a quiet self-confident man from a small African country named Undurwa, as fictional as Guerrero, which will figure in the next book; Belle’s lawyer George Milford, his wife Eva, and the Chelm siblings–Roy and Patricia.   And these, in case you hadn’t figured it out, are the murder suspects, because this is a classic parlor mystery, ala Dame Agatha.

Belle is found murdered in her room later that night, and Grofield, having threatened her with a gun just a few hours before, is detained by her security staff.  Her husband, a gambling kingpin named B.G. Danamato, was the guy Belle was scared might have her killed, since she was leaving him, and a lot of his property is in her name, for tax purposes.  His men were the ones who took Grofield’s car, thus forcing him to stay the night there.  Grofield initially figures he’s being framed for Belle’s death, and will be handed over to the law.

But B.G., one of Westlake’s overly emotional mob bosses (I believe the fourth thus far, and the second obsessed with learning the truth about the murder of a woman he loved–remember Ernie Rembek from the first Mitch Tobin mystery?), never had any intention of killing her, and is grief stricken over her death.  He won’t rest easy until he’s found the killer and administered justice–personally.

And one guess who he thinks the culprit is.  Grofield, his usual persuasive self, is able to plant a few doubts in B.G’s mind–what was his motive?  B.G. had sized Grofield up as some kind of bohemian hophead, who killed his wife in a drug-induced frenzy, but Grofield lets him know appearances are always deceptive in his case.

Danamato said “You scored?  What kind of score.”

“Money,” Grofield said.  “I take money for a living.”

“What are you, a burglar?”

Grofield shook his head.  “I’m in the heavy.”

Danamato studied him.  “You don’t look it.”

“Thank you.”

Being in the illegal gambling business himself, just like the less emotional Walter Karns, Danamato had heard about the Cockaigne heist a few weeks earlier, though he’s vague on the details.  The fact that Grofield has nearly killed one of his top men with a sudden blow to his nose is further evidence Grofield is who and what he says he is.  His Actor’s Equity card is a source of confusion to all of them, but he’s used to people not believing in the actor/heister thing.  Would you?

The job done on Belle doesn’t look like the work of a pro, so maybe Grofield is innocent–B.G. agrees, grudgingly, to interrogate the other five people who could possibly have done Belle in, and Grofield is quite determined to hang the murder on one of them–he doesn’t care who.   As he says later, he doesn’t give a damn whodunit–he just wants to persuade B.G. it wasn’t him.  Truth be damned–he just wants to go on living.   But B.G. has taken a strong disliking to Grofield, and will need very strong evidence to let him go–more than just a reasonable doubt.

So one by one, the other guests are brought in to talk to these two very unlikely detectives, and it turns out they all had possible motives to kill her.  Well, that’s always the way in this kind of story, isn’t it?   Grofield, trying to trip up the killer, manages to antagonize each and every one of them, with the exception of Marba–the two immediately understand each other. Both affable rogues.

Marba’s potential motive is pretty weak, anyway–he was trying to persuade Belle to invest money in legalized gambling casinos in his country, and he might have killed her when he found out she wasn’t going to–but that’s not really a good enough reason, is it?  Westlake obviously only has him there to set up the next book, which he must have written around the same time.

Roy Chelm was engaged to Belle–B.G. is convinced she’d never have actually gone through with it–but they were not sleeping together, since Roy is a complete and total prig, and doesn’t believe in sex before marriage.  His sister Patricia (she prefers Pat) seems equally prim and proper, but Grofield finds her quite attractive all the same–doesn’t stop him from trying to get her to admit she killed Belle out of repressed sexual jealousy.

Grofield really is quite the bastard in this one, almost everybody in the book says so repeatedly, and he cheerfully admits to it with his typical aplomb.  It’s never been more clear that he’s as cold-blooded as Parker when it comes to getting what he wants–but somehow it’s easier to dislike Grofield for it than it is Parker, because he’s so–human.

(Sidebar: In her excellent introduction to the Grofield novels for U. of Chicago’s reprint editions, Sarah Weinman makes note of what she considers the misogyny in this book–but I don’t agree.  It’s misanthropy.  Grofield is a chauvinist, certainly–in the same sense that James Bond is, and in much the same manner, though with a lot less chivalrous pretense–but he treats women no worse than men, and probably a bit better, at least if they’re attractive, which is of course a very good description of sexism. But not misogyny.  Grofield is not in any way inclined to see men as the superior sex. He knows too much about men to believe that.

Weinman finds Parker much easier to take, and I’ve noted in the past that Parker’s much more horrible behavior is somehow less offputting, because we identify so strongly with him–women as much as men–and are therefore inclined to excuse whatever he does, because it’s such a tempting fantasy, not giving a damn about anything.  Grofield is not so easy to project oneself into, since there’s all kinds of things he gives a damn about, so his merely caddish behavior comes across as worse than Parker striking his wife, then goading her to suicide, then mutilating her face, and feeling no guilt over it ever afterward.

One further thing I’d like to point out–Ms. Weinman is certainly free to see misogyny in the book, and in the case of Belle she may have a real point, but Pat Chelm’s last name–an apparent reference to a tradition in European Jewish storytelling, relating to a Polish town named Chelm, where the inhabitants are all fools–doesn’t really count as evidence of this.  The only character referred to as ‘Chelm’ in this book is Roy, and he well merits the description.  Westlake was often drawn to Jewish humor, so I have no trouble believing the reference is intentional–there’s a similar tradition in Irish humor, though in both traditions, it’s not always so easy to know who the joke is really on.  But I digress.)

George Milford doesn’t really have a motive–unless he was sleeping with Belle, and if he was, his wife would also have a motive, particularly since the only reason they’re here in the first place is that George ruined himself professionally by running away with a high school girl.  Grofield presses both of them pretty hard, but when all is said and done, he can’t persuade B.G., and B.G. needs to kill somebody.   Grofield has failed to present him with a good enough alternative.  Locked in a room he can’t get out of, Grofield is pretty damn sure he’s going to be the sacrificial lamb.

Then Pat shows up with an offer–she and her brother are both non-drivers–she thinks B.G. will kill Roy just for having been involved with Belle–so even though she believes Grofield is the murderer, she’ll let him go in exchange for Grofield driving them both out of there.   They make their break successfully, but then run out of gas, and end up stranded in the El Yunque rainforest preserve.  Roy gets grabbed while trying to flag down a car, so now it’s just Grofield and Pat.  They make their way back to San Juan.  Yes of course they have sex now, it’s a Grofield novel.

See, it turns out Pat isn’t the virgin spinster Grofield assumed she was–she had an affair with a married man five years before, got pregnant, got abandoned, got an abortion, and she’s been under Roy’s wing ever since, trying to live up to his ridiculous expectations of sexual virtue.  Grofield asks if it isn’t time she got over it, and apparently this is also misogyny–I think it’s just rude.  But honest.  I mean, isn’t it one of the major points of feminism that having an abortion isn’t the end of the world, and you do eventually get over it?

Grofield genuinely likes Pat, and is quite honest and direct about his intention to get her in bed–though not about being married himself, because that would ruin his chances with her (breaking with his past tendency to tell women he’s trying to seduce about Mary in advance of the seduction).

He would ditch her in a moment and make a run for it if he could, but she’s made it clear she’d rat him out if he tried–she needs him to rescue Roy.  He could always kill her–Parker would–but that’s just not him.  So if he’s going to risk his neck yet again, for a guy he’s truly come to loathe, he ought to at least get some illicit nookie into the bargain.  Fair is fair.  Richard Stark never lets his heroes look too bad, we should always remember.

Obviously it doesn’t hurt his case with her that he’s a charming good-looking actor.   And of course she needs some sexual healing, to coin a phrase.  There was a lot of this kind of writing going on back then, and there’s a lot of it going on now, and all we can say is that people seem to enjoy it.  And if you need any further evidence, check out the box office for that Fifty Shades movie this weekend.  Yes, I know, that’s different.   The writing is incalculably inferior, for one thing.   Donald Westlake, on the worst day of his life, puked better writing than E.L. James, and look who’s a multi-millionaire.  And you wonder why Grofield is such a cynic?  And I digress again, but this book really is not that easy to stay focused on.

So let me skip to the end, leaving out all the patented Grofieldian maneuvers, all very reminiscent of the last book, with its very similar title, and very similar love interest, and very similar stock villains.  Grofield tries to rescue Roy, but Roy (being such a Chelm) figures he’ll just give Grofield to B.G., thus winning his freedom–he doesn’t realize this will alienate his sister from him forever, even though Grofield specifically tells him that’s what will happen.  So Grofield is right back where he started–his neck squarely on the chopping block.

Grofield has figured out who the killer was by now, and has churlishly refused to tell us, but now he’s got no choice–it’s not a scientific deduction, but an emotional one.   Who would have been angry enough at Belle Danamato to kill her, and would have also lacked the self-control to refrain from doing so?   He’s figured it out, but he’s got no way of proving it to B.G., who assumes he’s just trying to save his neck, which in all fairness Grofield has admitted to being his overriding concern from the get-go.

Grofield’s only hope is to explain what happened, and why, and hope the killer will confess to avoid having another death on his or her conscience.   And honestly, I’d tell you who it was, except I don’t care any more than Grofield does.  The killer does (not too improbably) ‘fess up, and Grofield is released.  He and Pat take a few days R&R at the beach, and then he heads back home to Mary at last.

And of course Pat, who is done with Roy for keeps, is now sexually free and not expecting any commitment from Grofield, who clearly isn’t husband material–she’ll just find somebody else to frolic in the sun with.   He doesn’t tell her about Mary, who has probably already received shipment of his share of the Cockaigne score from his girlfriend of the previous book.

He’s had affairs with three different beautiful young blondes since he last saw his wife a few weeks before, parted with all three women on the best of terms, and shortly he’ll waltz in the door, and take his equally lovely wife to bed, and never so much as hear the word ‘divorce’ mentioned.   Okay, I’m not saying Sarah Weinman doesn’t have any valid points to make, you understand.

But the thing about unapologetic cads is that they’re unapologetic cads.  You can accuse them of a whole lot of things, but not hypocrisy.   Let us not forget this is a series of books about an actor who finances his career through armed robbery.  If you wanted realism–or morality–or 21st century inter-gender relations, such as they are–boy, did you come to the wrong play.   The Rake’s Progress, only without the decline and fall part.

So Grofield’s three-book Odyssey that began with The Handle has concluded, and you’d think he’d stay home with his Penelope a while, but what happened was that Westlake immediately published another novel, where yet another heist goes wrong, and Grofield gets sucked into yet another misadventure that has nothing to do with either of his professions, and I think Westlake was writing these things awfully fast.

Which is not to say they have nothing to offer–they are interesting experiments in form, and tone, and even character, but they do seem a lot like Westlake trying variations on things he had already written or was in the process of writing.  The playful tone of the Grofields is a nice break from Stark’s–starkness–but again, I don’t really feel like Westlake has figured out how to write as Stark when not writing about Parker.  Like The Damsel, this feels like a Stark novel ghostwritten by Westlake.  But once you’ve run out of Parkers to read, it does have its pleasures.

One thing about Grofield, as opposed to Parker–somehow, you do believe he can die.  There’s always this sense that he’s walking on very thin ice, almost all the time.  He keeps glancing nervously at us–or perhaps his creator–wondering if this time the curtain is coming down on him for keeps.  He’s very ‘meta’ in this regard, in a way Parker never was.  As I’ve mentioned before, he does wink at the audience–but it’s not a self-satisfied wink.   He’s like Buster Keaton in that famous scene from Sherlock Jr.–he never knows which change of setting will be his last.  But he’ll keep rolling with it, and trust that it all works out somehow.  He is the hero, after all.   Bastard though he is.

And bastard that I am, I’m going to cut this short now, and get back to Grofield in the next book–which is, in its own very odd way, a recap of Up Your Banners–only with a lot more gunplay and international intrigue, and a whole lot less social relevance and emotional involvement.  Not that there’s anything wrong with that.


Filed under Donald Westlake novels

19 responses to “Review: The Dame

  1. Great write-up of an okay book. I love Grofield in the Parker novels, but the Grofield novels (with the possible exception of the last) feel like middling exercises in other genres. (I don’t think I’ve ever read a mystery with a more half-hearted “solution” than this one.) Stand-alone Grofield feels like a rougher, more cynical, misanthropic character than sidekick Grofield. Sidekick Grofield relishes the humor, adventure, and absurdity of even the most dangerous situations (much to Parker’s annoyance, sometimes). I’m thinking of the ever-present soundtrack that plays in Grofield’s head, or his round of Charades with his hostage/future wife, or his laughing fit over the idiocy of their doctor financier. Hard to imagine stand-alone Grofield indulging in any of that silliness, especially after a particularly nasty act he commits in the next book. But we’ll save that for next time.

    • The most memorable moment involving Grofield from his first appearance is him standing up to Parker, refusing flat-out to kill Mary to make sure she doesn’t talk to the law, forcing Parker to talk to Mary himself, and make sure she’s not going to be a problem. I think one thing we can say for sure about Grofield is that he wouldn’t kill a woman he was having sex with, unless maybe she was trying to kill him (which happens a lot in noir books, but never to Grofield–happened to Parker once, and he just stood there and let it happen–that’s the romantic streak in Stark talking).

      So I think that makes him seem like a less cold-blooded character than Parker, and nothing in The Handle really disabuses of us that notion, but the first three solo adventures increasingly call that estimation into question. We’re being told that Grofield is not in fact a nice guy. A nice guy is not going to cut it as a Stark protagonist. This isn’t some Nephew book. Remember his attitude towards cocky young amateurs–“Grow up fast, or die.” Grofield had a touch of the amateur about him still, in The Score, but it’s all gone now.

      Why was he so vulnerable to Mary? Probably because she appealed to him in a different way than the other women we see him with. Because as he learned while talking to her in the switchboard room in Copper Canyon, she was an aspiring actress, and as it turned out later, a good one. Actors feel differently about other actors than they do about normal people. Just as Parker feels differently about fellow heisters he’s on a job with than he does towards everybody else. As always with Stark, it’s about professionalism.

      He finds lots of women attractive, and once he’s hooked up with one, he may have a certain tender feeling, but it’s not serious–that thing guys say to their wives “It didn’t mean anything, honey, it was just sex”–he wouldn’t speak a line that corny for a million bucks, but that’s how it is with him. Mary is real to him, not because she’s his wife, but because he’s acted with her. He may form a bit of a connection with the Ellys and the Pats, since he’s going through all kinds of danger with them, but it’s just not as strong. Just ships screwing in the night. Don’t you love mixed metaphors?

      He is different around Parker, isn’t he? I think around Parker, he feels a bit more secure, lets his guard down a touch. Maybe that’s why in his last appearance–well, we’ll get to that.

  2. A crooked detective (what we can call Grofield) in the crooked setting – the idea of that was always appealing to me. That’s why I like this novel more than others do. This is a straight up murder mystery in the vein of The Busy Body, and it’s certainly more balanced and carefully plotted than the first Grofield novel which I can’t stand. Even a touch of international intrigue doesn’t spoil it. Stark allowed Parker to be a detective in two novels, The Seventh and The Jugger, now he did the same with Grofield.
    As a mystery, it’s nothing special, as a character study it’s too blunt, as a comedy it’s not really funny. Yet there is some spark inside it.

    “One thing about Grofield, as opposed to Parker–somehow, you do believe he can die.”

    That’s what I felt, too. Starting with this one, and straight to Butcher’s Moon. Grofield escaped death many times, and every time death seemed real.

    • Westlake actually developed the idea of a dishonest detective much more fully in A Travesty, a novella that comprises half of the two part anthology Enough! I don’t know if you’ve read that one.

      Here, Grofield really doesn’t do much detective work at all–he spends less than an hour asking a few people questions, and as mentioned, not really trying to find out who did it–just trying to find a likely enough patsy to get him off the hook. If he has to frame one of them, he’ll do so happily. He knows he didn’t do it, so he’s got a one-in-five chance of getting the guilty party. He thinks of all this as ad-libbing–he has to improvise, because he’s not working from his usual script, which is the case for all of the first three Grofields.

      Westlake is once again mocking the conventions of the classic mystery story, which typically bears almost no resemblance to an actual murder investigation. All the contrivances writers resort to in order to limit the number of possible suspects, and create a trail of clues that can lead to the murderer. He genuinely does like this genre, but at the same time he’s perpetually looking for ways to subvert it.

      Grofield does no real deduction–he just tosses over the various suspects in his head, all their behavioral quirks, combined with what he learned about the victim during their very brief acquaintance, and afterward, from B.G. and others.

      He can’t prove his final theory is correct–it’s just supposition, and the only reason his gambit at the end works is that the murderer is ashamed of having killed, and doesn’t want anyone else hurt. It actually wouldn’t be that hard to guess the killer, if you weren’t looking for some kind of trick–in real life, it’s almost never the least likely suspect. Or the butler. Poor maligned butlers.

      As a mystery, it’s nothing special, as a character study it’s too blunt, as a comedy it’s not really funny. Yet there is some spark inside it.

      Damn, if I could sum the books up that pithily, I’d already be done by now.

      • If you could, we would have nothing to discuss. So leave it me to summarize the books, and write as long as you can.

        Grofield does less detection here than, say, Clay, yet the formal conventions of the genre are here. Grofield is fooling around and acts like a crook, Westlake offers half-assed solution to the crime, despite all this The Dame is more solid story than The Damsel.

        • I tend to agree, even though The Damsel is a more expansive ambitious story, and it seems awfully repetitive to have Grofield get into trouble with yet another pretty naive blonde and gangsters, right after the events of that book. Even so–when I reread The Damsel recently, I liked it less than the first time through. When I reread The Dame, I liked it just a bit more than I had–Westlake has developed the character a bit more. But he’s still got a ways to go. And just two more books to get there. We’ll see how much closer he gets in the next one.

    • Yes, Grofield appears in four Parker novels, and gets hurt very badly in all but the first of them.

      • And recovers with astounding rapidity, all three times, though when we last see him, he’s still in pretty dodgy shape. I always wondered if Westlake had decided afterwards that he didn’t survive that one, but some comments from him I’ve read indicate otherwise. He had a soft spot for the character, but he also seemed to enjoy punishing him. For being such a bastard, I guess. Or for having such a good time. Pleasure will be paid, one time or another, as The Bard said. 😉

  3. The Dame is also notable for having a minor character who’s pretty unambiguously gay (based on his own dialogue), but whose homosexuality goes entirely unremarked upon. It’s not progressive, exactly, but it’s interesting that gay people are just part of the fabric of society — even criminal society.

    • Yeah, I don’t even remember picking up on that the first time I read the book, though it’s hardly subtle. B.G. isn’t in the mafia, exactly, so not that hard to believe. This guy found his little niche, and that’s one reason why he’s so loyal to Danamato. He doesn’t have to hide who he is. He just has to do his job, and he is the one guy in that bunch Grofield can’t seem to get around at all.

      Westlake did sometimes do this kind of thing–like in Kinds of Love, Kinds of Death, where one of the suspects is a mob enforcer who is not gay, but has narcissistic tendencies and clearly leads an unconventional lifestyle that might sometimes involve sex with men. And people know about it, but don’t really care as long as his private life stays private.

      Still, this mirrors changes in the popular culture–more and more gay characters emerging in popular fiction–Diamonds are Forever was published in 1956, and features Mr. Wint and Mr. Kidd, two gay assassins, who of course were memorably (and creepily) portrayed in the movie adaptation years later. Print fiction tended to be well out ahead of the movies, and really, still is.

      Westlake wrote a LOT about gay people in the 50’s, but it was all ‘sleaze’ fiction, where that was not only tolerated, but expected. And there were distinct limitations to how you could portray them–could never have two men or two women living happily ever after. We look back and shake our heads pityingly, but would we have been any better? We move forward slowly and painfully, if at all, and we backslide a hell of a lot.

      I was just talking with Ray elsewhere about how you could argue Fifty Shades of Grey (the book) is actually a highly successful mainstream revival of the sleaze subgenre. Not really porn, and the kinky stuff is softened by the redeeming influence of romantic love. People don’t really change. But industry standards do. If there’s a market for it, they’ll find a way to sell it. Ideally, literature is supposed to be about more than selling and buying, but I can’t say the embodiment of fantasies isn’t part of what writing is about. It’s just sad when it becomes nothing more than sophisticated wanking. Jane Austen with nipple clamps and absolutely nothing to say about society, or human beings. Oh well, Dakota Johnson is hot, anyway. 😉

  4. Goddamn was this a waste of potential. I’d argue The Dame is even more of a letdown than The Damsel.

    When Bella was killed and Grofield had to cook up a suspect that wasn’t him, I was hooked. Grofield and B.G. had a tense but entertaining bad cop/worse cop dynamic between one another, Grofield was arguably a bigger bastard here but it was actually engaging this go around, and most importantly, Grofield actually had a legitimate motivation for playing along with the plot this time! Nothing ground breaking sure, but it was solid enough for me to buy why Grofield couldn’t just walk out of the story like he practically could in The Damsel.

    I also really liked Pat in the first act. When she proved to be way too prudish for Grofield to be interested in her sexually, I was kinda surprised. I was thinking “Wait, so she ISN’T a Grofield style love interest. Is…is Westlake not gonna do that trope this time?” And I remember being impressed….

    Aaaaand then Grofield escapes B.G.’s grasp with the help of Pat and Roy. Aaaaand then Pat sheds her repressed prudish disguise and turns out to be a proper Grofield style love interest. Aaaaand all the problems I had with The Damsel came back with a vengeance.

    Now, Grofield doesn’t have a solid reason for just getting the hell out of dodge. Sure, he can’t just kill Pat (despite being perfectly willing to frame her for the murder, knowing full well B.G. might kill her….wat) but there are plenty of non lethal ways to silence her (knocking her out, tying her up, etc.) for a couple hours. That’s all the time he needs to travel back into the states and once he does, having Pat rat to the Police will be irrelevant. It’s not like Grofield has much inclination to go back to Puerto Rico, anyway. For me, “Pat will alert the police of Grofield” lacks the immediate danger that was provided by “If Grofield doesnt come up with another prime suspect, B.G. will kill him”.

    As I mentioned earlier, I thought Pat was more interesting when she was a prudish prig. I didn’t really buy her transformation as it were mid book (felt way too fast and artificial) and she became rather dull as a character. Of course, the trope probably just wasn’t for me. Maybe if there was more evidence of her secretly resenting having to live up to Roy’s stifling expectations.

    But most of all, the mystery aspect of this book disappointed me. Grofield says he doesn’t care whodunnit and, true to his word, we don’t find out his conclusion for a very long time. But, if this were meant to a subversion of murder mystery tropes, wouldn’t it be more subversive to commit to that bit and just not have the reader find out whodunnit at all? I’d also like to point out that Westlake handled the “anticlimactic murder reveal” trope much better in Somebody Owes Me Money which, iirc, came out earlier than The Dame.

    I feel rather bad ragging so hard on The Dame because I can tell Westlake was earnestly trying to improve from The Damsel. And, again, at points he does improve from that book. I just think it was a mistake to have Grofield escape and do his Grofield shtick with Pat.

    • He still doesn’t know what to do with Grofield–we’re still not in the heist subgenre here. Remember, these books are for Macmillan’s Cock Robin imprint–as in “Who Killed Cock Robin?,” get it? There has to be a dead body in the parlor or whatever. Somebody has to find out whodunnit.

      The only alternative to that is for Grofield to be some kind of traditional hero type–a swashbuckling adventurer in The Damsel–a Bondian secret agent in The Blackbird. Here he’s a sleuth, ala Dame Agatha. But in all three cases, he has to be coerced into these roles. Central Casting insists, and he goes along with the program. All he really wants to do is go home, count his money, put on a show, fuck Mary. But when you can’t be with the one you love…..

      He really thought he had something with Grofield–one of my regulars here found an old interview, where he’s talking up Grofield almost as if he’s going to be bigger than Parker. He wrote these books fairly close together, along with a bunch of other books. It’s not so easy to know what’s working or not, when you have so many irons in the fire at once.

      I think he enjoyed the process of figuring out how to solve the puzzle of motivation–why do we do things we don’t really want to do, particularly if they might get us killed? He thought he’d failed with The Jugger–we think differently, but we can’t write stories like this, can we now? (It may simply be we dig Parker so much, we’re less inclined to pick nits.) In this case, a nubile young blonde with personal issues to resolve is part of Grofield’s motivation. He, unlike Parker, likes to have sex while he’s working. It’s part of his process. He also likes Pat, personally, though he has no intention of leaving Mary, ever. So Pat becomes his motive for seeing this through. Also a motive for horny people to read the books.

      I’m not going to pretend I disapprove. I’m sure the sex was great. The book could be a lot more satisfactory. Eventually, he’ll crack the case, make Grofield work. Then walk away from Grofield and never look back.

      I personally find Somebody Owes Me Money to be one of the weakest ‘Nephew’ books, but it’s certainly better than this one. It’s also in the first person, it’s written as comedy, there’s a blonde love interest (the coupling will happen about two minutes after the final fade), and the hero solves the mystery. And again, it’s somebody you wouldn’t have expected, which is not a new thing for the genre. (“The Butler Did It” dates back to Mary Roberts Rinehart’s The Door–they did a Broadway play of it, and that’s where the phrase was repeated so often, people got the idea gentlemen’s gentlemen were always the killers in mystery fiction, whereas that’s very near the only time that turned out to be the case). Mystery writers are magicians–they work by distraction. Get you focused on one thing, to avoid you seeing what’s really there. In a sense, Westlake cheats in that book, but then cheerfully admits to it by having somebody complain it’s cheating. It’s also reality–sometimes the murderer is somebody completely off the radar.

      But yes, you’ve once again spotted Mr. Westlake using multiple books to try and make a particular type of plot work–entertainingly enough–but he had a fair share of misfires–as anyone who writes that much will. I think he found whodunnits a bit tiresome, but they were expected. So he tried changing up the form, and sometimes it worked. If you want to see him at his best in this form, try Mitch Tobin. If you want to see Grofield at his best, wait for the last novel.

      So what did you think of the abortion discussion? Probably the most controversial thing about the book. That she had one, and that a man told her to not worry about it, move on. And she does. Goes from being all frosty to being ready to swing. Well, it’s the swinging sixties. Just barely. ’69. And it will still be ’69 when the next Grofield comes out. You see what I mean about them being spaced close together. Motivation is such a big issue for him because he has to keep finding motivations to write so much. One motive is he loves it. The other is money. But most of all, “How can I make this work?” Sometimes he couldn’t. So keep writing until he can. Then write something else.

      • To be honest, I didn’t really have much to say about the abortion portion. I thought Grofield was a bit of a dick for dismissing Pat’s feelings over the situation, but that’s about it. And hey, it is shockingly progressive to see someone not treat abortion as the worst possible act one could commit.

        See, I get this is meant to be a whodunnit, I get that what Grofield’s role here is. And that’s the part I really like about The Dame. My problem is that Westlake essentially abandons that angle during the middle for more Grofield shtick (going to casinos, hanging out in nice hotels, daring car chases, sex with hot chicks, etc.). I get that Westlake’s playing to the demographic, and there’s certainly an audience for that. I’m fairly certain I’m not part of it.

        Again, I would’ve vastly preferred a version of this story where Grofield never gets the chance to escape, where he has to keep putting together a plausible suspect for B.G. to kill instead of him. Really play into the idea of Grofield essentially putting on a one man show with himself as the writer, director, and star. Hell, you still include Pat as the sexy love interest. Have Grofield pretend to try romancing Pat because he plans to finger her for the suspect, include all the sexy fun times you want as Pat slowly unveils her true sexually adventurous self, and as she does we see Grofield naturally go back on his plan as he no longer has the heart to throw her to B.G.

        …Of course, now I’m just rewriting the book into something I want it to be but hoppefully you get my point.

        Essentially, I felt this book didn’t explore the fantastic concept of “Grofield has to pin the wrap on somebody or else he’ll get killed ” nearly enough as it should have.

        If anything, I’d argue The Damsel is more consistent because it’s a swashbuckler through and through, unlike The Dame.

        • I’d agree The Damsel is better, but that’s partly because The Dame has massive plausibility issues from Chapter One. Grofield just did a major heist, almost died, got his share, went right into another adventure that had no profit in it, and then goes to Puerto Rico about a job with people he doesn’t know, involving security work (which he doesn’t do), and even when he has a chance to split, he doesn’t.

          Even the two sex interests aren’t much different from each other–both pretty blondes with family problems using their looks combined with various material inducements to get Grofield to play along. (Crystal in The Handle isn’t asking for anything at all, so there’s no conflict). Pat is a lot more hostile than Elly, less idealistic–other than that, she’s the same stock character, who could be played by the same stock actress in the movies that will never be made.

          Westlake didn’t have to do any of that. He chose to do that. This is a do-over. He was trying to fix the problems in the first book, and he ended up making them worse. So the end result is, Grofield is away from Mary for several weeks, he has sex with three attractive blonde women in close succession, he somehow manages to shake off being shot multiple times, but he makes no money at all in his two solo ventures, nor does he in the next one, as I recall, but at least that’s not right after he and Pat say goodbye, and the motivation issues are far better addressed. Also, the next girl isn’t a blonde. To say the least. I think we can say that after The Dame, he knew he was going to have to change things up a lot, but he still feels like writing for this imprint, he can’t make it a straight-up heist book, and he needs some exotic locale. The last book was written for an entirely different publisher, and is, therefore, entirely different.

          I like the fixes you suggest. But have you ever written 18 novels, a children’s book, and a bunch of short stories in about three years? Me neither. I can’t even finish a blog article anymore (I keep saying next week). It’s exhausting to even think about doing all that work. So much of it remarkably good. What are the odds all of it would be? How could anyone multi-task like that? I know of more prolific authors, but they mainly just cranked out the same books, over and over. Westlake repeats himself, but only when he feels like he didn’t get it right the first time. Or the second. Third time lucky? You tell me.

          • I can actually somewhat buy Grofield’s motivation for heading over to Puerto Rico. It’s like Parker noted, he tends to work too much for his own good and, even worse, he’s very much a romantic so the mystery of what the job entailed may have appealed to him.

            Yeah, that’s the rub, isn’t it? Of course I can suggest many improvements, I’m not multitasking multiple projects, nor am I on a deadline, nor am I restricted to the rules and in house style of publication houses.

            During my journey of trying to become a master of constructive feedback, I often made this mistake before realizing why, unless the artist is sending an early draft of their work, suggesting fixes and changes won’t help much (and even that circumstance comes with plenty of caveats). Of course, this doesn’t people from still doing it, including myself as you can see. Maybe we really just do it so people can tell us our ideas are good 😛

            On a tangential note, I read this book as recently seeing a murder mystery film called See How They Run (a splendid pastiche/tribute that I highly recommend if you feel comfortable going back to theaters) which had Adrien Brody as the victim. As a result I inadvertently headcast Brody as Grofield and, honestly, I’m kind of surprised I haven’t made that cast before. He’s nigh perfect.

            • Greg Tulonen

              I can see Adrien Brody working as Grofield. I always headcast a young Kevin Kline, who has a similar vibe I think, though KK is/was less serious than AB, which works for Grofield.

              • Thing is, by the time an actor has made a name for himself, he’s either too old, or too big a star to play Grofield (who begins his existence as a sideman). I’ll just say “Find an unknown who deserves to be known.” And I’d say the same for Parker. That’s my escape hatch from headcasting. There’s plenty of great actors out there who aren’t stars, and stars are a goddam headache to work with. As Grofield knew well, which is why he chose not to become one. One of his more likable characteristics.

            • I’ve never been much of a fan of his, though I’ve seen him in a fair few things (I saw Splice in a theater, but that was for Sarah Polley–they play scientists married to each other, and all through the movie I was like “She could do better” and boy was I right). He fits the general profile, whether I like him or not, but the truth is, any actor of the right general appearance could work for Grofield–he’s not hard to cast–and that’s why they keep making Parker movies, which are pretty much impossible to cast.

              I still like Alan Alda better. They’re both too old now, anyway. Which is going to be true, in general, for anyone you headcast, which makes one question the point of headcasting at times. Tall, thin, dark, intense. So they’d go with short, stocky, blonde, laid-back. Hollywood.

              I could make the same justifications for Grofield’s behavior, probably have. But with fiction, as with politics, when you’re explaining, you’re losing. There’s a reason he wrote the next one so differently, albeit with some of the same patterns (there’s always going to be a girl where Grofield is concerned–Parker, not necessarily–he can take it or leave it, particularly once Claire is in the picture, which was one reason to put her in the picture).

              I think I’ve already seen See How They Run, but it was a novel, entitled Pity Him Afterwards, and guess who wrote it? 😉

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s