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 NYC 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.”
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 find 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, and 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 been admitting was his sole 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.