Review: Lemons Never Lie

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Grofield heard the interest in Tebelman’s voice, and was tempted to go into a whole explanation about being an actor in a pre-technological sense–he had the feeling Tebelman’s attitudes would be basically similar–but something about the presence of Barnes, his cigarette a red dot in the darkness, inhibited him.  Barnes, he knew, was the more typical heister; a professional with only this one profession, who found all his satisfactions, financial and otherwise, within the one area.  Tebelman was the only other person like himself Grofield had ever met in this business.

And Tebelman’s question was hanging in the darkness, awaiting an answer.  More conscious of Barnes’ presence than he would have been in a lighted room where he could see the man, Grofield said, “I’m an actor.  I own a summer theater.”

“Isn’t there money in that?”

“Hardly.  Not with movies and television.

“Ah.” There was a little silence, then, until Tebelman said, “You know, there’s a school of thought that says the artist and the criminal are variants on the same basic personality type.  Did you know that?”

Grofield was sorry now the conversation had gotten started at all.  “No, I didn’t,” he said.

“That art and crime are both antisocial acts,” Tebelman said.  “There’s a whole theory about it.  The artist and the criminal both divorce themselves from society by their life patterns, they both tend to be loners, they both tend to have brief periods of intense activity and then long periods of rest.  There’s a lot more.”

“Interesting,” Grofield said.

Obviously, when I started Lemons Never Lie, I had no idea it would be the last appearance of Alan Grofield, who had ridden shotgun in six Parker novels, The Score, The Handle, Slayground, Deadly Edge, Plunder Squad and Butcher’s Moon, as well as taking the wheel himself three other times, in The Damsel, The Dame and The Blackbird. He was good company, and then he went away.

I’d brought him aboard in the first place to try to lighten up Parker, which was clearly not going to happen. Still, might Parker find the need for his presence again, some time down the road? Don’t ask me.

What pleases me most about Lemons Never Lie is that it was the only time I can think of where I invented a plot structure. That structure, which is not an arc but three bounces, each one higher, was new, I believe. And Alan Grofield was the perfect unruffled guy to do it. Enjoy. ~DEW

I don’t know when or for what Westlake wrote that squib about how he didn’t know Lemons Never Lie would be the last Grofield novel.  I snipped that from the Official Westlake Blog, and it reads like a hastily written introduction for a paperback reprint, but I don’t really know.  I know it must have been quite a few years after he wrote the book, because he says it’s Grofield’s last appearance (which it isn’t) and that Grofield appears in Deadly Edge and Plunder Squad (which he doesn’t).   I have to keep reminding myself what I wrote on this blog a few months ago, so hardly surprising.

I’d assume he wrote that brief commentary after he’d started producing Parker novels again in the late 90’s, and was still figuring out how to make the four decade old series feel current and credible.   An alternate universe version of Grofield (who had sold out and become a prosperous star of film and TV) periodically appeared in the Dortmunder books.  Grofield never appeared in a Stark novel after Butcher’s Moon.  Maybe Westlake just felt the concept of an actor/heister committing armed robberies under the same (very uncommon) name that he acted under made no sense anymore in the Information Age that even Parker was just barely making out in.

So this is the last Grofield novel–it wasn’t planned as such, doesn’t read as such, and yet somehow it kind of works as such.  A sort of summing up, you might say. It’s very different than the previous three, not least in that it isn’t a sequel to a Parker novel (like The Damsel and The Dame) nor does it share an opening scene with a Parker novel (like The Blackbird).

Nor is it set in some exotic foreign clime.  Nor does it have a title referring to a female character.  Nor does it put Grofield into some situation he isn’t familiar with, referring to a different genre of fiction, such as mystery or espionage.  Nor does Grofield sleep with some beautiful stranger in this book–he does get it on with a hot brunette, but as the punchline goes ‘That was no lady, that was my wife.’   And turns out she really is some lady.

It does, like the others, refer to Parker, remind us of Grofield’s connection to him (there’s even a brief cameo by Handy McKay).  Westlake was well aware of the fact that Grofield had not developed much of an independent fanbase, and that Grofield’s readership was, in the main, a subset of Parker’s.

Perhaps the most noteworthy thing about the book is that it actually shows Grofield working in the theater–his own personal theater, located way out in the sticks, in rural Indiana.  Not acting, but more mundane tasks, like washing out stage ‘flats’ to be repainted, talking with Mary about plays they might put on, actors they might recruit.  And of course raising the needed funds to put on these plays, and when Alan Grofield talks fund-raising for his highly unprofitable theatrical ventures, he doesn’t mean pledge drives and tote bags.

Grofield appeared in eight out of twenty-eight Richard Stark novels, and we never see him acting in a play in even one of them, unless you count him sitting by himself in a corner at the hideout in The Score, playing all parts in a scene from Henry IV Part One.  We’re told he’s good, and that with his talent and looks he could find work in television anytime he wanted, maybe even become a big star, but his dedication to live theater makes him rule that out categorically.   He would rather steal than sell out.

There’s a passage in this book that possibly explains why we never see Grofield acting on stage–he’s contemplating the sorry state of his and Mary’s finances, and lamenting that no heisting work seems imminent–

If worst came to worse he’d drop down into Kentucky or North Carolina for a week or two of writing paper, but he hated that kind of thing, and avoided it whenever he possibly could.  Passing bum checks was no more illegal than knocking over armored cars, but there was a difference he found important; a check passer is an actor, he uses an actor’s talent and methods, but a heavy heister uses different talents entirely. It bothered Grofield to use his acting abilities that way, it seemed somehow degrading.

You just know that if they ever did a movie or a TV show based on Grofield, we’d see him acting all the time–they’d want to show us both his professions, to get that visual contrast, hammer home the premise, the primary conceit of the story.  It would get very cute and contrived, very fast–but they’d have to do it.  Stark, like Grofield, doesn’t want to make that compromise.  He wants to keep things clean and uncluttered, like he always does.

That business about floating bad checks reminds me of what some of Dortmunder’s associates were doing between jobs in The Hot Rock, and again we see the odd doorway that seems to exist between the Stark-verse and the Dortmunder dimension, that is particularly noticeable when Grofield is around.  He isn’t really a Stark character, even in this book–he’s still a Westlake character who ended up in a bunch of Stark novels.

And Mary Grofield (nee Deegan), former switchboard girl in Copper Canyon, North Dakota, who met Grofield in The Score (which we’re told–I don’t know how accurately–was about four years before the events of this book), and insisted on tagging along with him at considerable risk to her life, because the life she had was so damned unsatisfactory–well, this is the last really good look we get at her, which I find personally frustrating, because she’s one of my favorite supporting characters in Westlake’s books.

We finally find out her hair color–black–and her figure–neat and compact–and that she looks like the heroine of a 30’s musical, whatever that means (Ruby Keeler?).  But in a sense, I would argue, she jumped over to the world of Dortmunder as well, in even more altered form.

She’s working in a local supermarket, we’re told–making just enough money for her and Grofield to get by, if they sleep on the stage of their theater–and she’s bringing home groceries from her workplace, only some of which are paid for.   And she has this rationale that what Grofield does when he’s not acting isn’t really stealing, because he’s mainly just taking from institutions who should be giving us money anyhow.

Make her a bit less of a fantasy, a smidgen more grounded in reality, put a cigarette in her mouth, take the ‘r’ out of her name, and you’ve got May–Dortmunder’s best girl, who we’ll be meeting very soon.  Mitch Tobin’s wife also worked at a supermarket to help pay the bills, but the noble Kate would never take so much as a stick of gum she hadn’t paid for.   Mary and May, like Kate Tobin, are hardworking and low-maintenance–but much more ethically flexible in other respects–like Claire Carroll.

And this whole darkhaired-wife-working-at-supermarket leitmotif we see over and over in Westlake’s books makes me wonder about those early days of Westlake’s first marriage, when he was still struggling to make it as a writer, but I should know better by now than to ask questions I have no means of learning the answers to.

I have now read this book twice, and I must confess, I don’t see that thing Westlake refers to–the new plot structure.   It’s different from a Parker, sure–the entire story is from Grofield’s perspective, but that was true of The Dame and The Blackbird as well.  He divides it into five parts, each of which begins with Chapter One, and each of which is named after the place it’s set in–Las Vegas, Mead Grove Indiana, St. Louis–then there’s a part called ‘Moving’, which starts in Mead Grove, then has Grofield traveling around, and the final part is set in good old Monequois, New York–this time it’s an isolated town a few miles from the Canadian border, with a brewery in it.   Why not?

I don’t quite see the three bounces.  I don’t know what he’s talking about.  This is probably because I’m not a writer of fiction, accustomed to mapping out plots.  Is it something entirely new?  I have no idea.  Somebody wants to explain it to me, I’d be only too pleased.

I just know it’s very much a Stark novel, and yet still very different in both tone and structure from a Parker novel.  It’s the most successful attempt Westlake ever made to write under the Stark name without writing about Parker, and yet I can’t possibly agree with Paul Kavanagh, who called it ‘The best Richard Stark ever’–it’s definitely not the worst, but it’s very very far from the best.  The fact that Paul Kavanagh is one of Lawrence Block’s pen names makes me suspect he was tossing his buddy a blurb.

But anyway, just to be different, let me synopsize sectionally this time:

Las Vegas:  The shortest section of the book, this sets up the main storyline–it begins with Grofield winning a few nickels at a slot machine at the airport, which he considers an ill omen, since he got three lemons–his old hex sign. He gives the money to a couple there on vacation, and they start gambling with it, and losing, and we’re told he feels slightly guilty about getting them started.  Just to remind us, this is not a Parker novel.

Grofield is there about a job, which is planned by a guy named Myers.  Myers is clearly an amateur, and as all us Stark readers know by know, amateurs spell trouble.  Myers says there’s this brewery in Monequois that still has a cash payroll (a rare thing even back when the first Parker novel came out, and getting rarer all the time).  It’s supposed to be about 120 grand.  He wants to plant a bomb inside the brewery, then come in with a fire engine, thus getting past the guards.

(Yes, it does sound a lot like the heist in Flashfire, doesn’t it?  That’s one of the few Parker novels I’d say is probably not quite as good as this one.  Lemons Never Lie would be easier to film, it’s more self-contained, and has the better title–way better than Parker.  Maybe they should have made this book into a movie, with Jason Statham as Grofield, except who’d buy him as a professional actor?  Oh, that was mean.)

Grofield walks out of the meet before Myers finishes his pitch.  The plan is full of holes.  It involves killing a lot of civilians, which he says doesn’t bother him morally (I don’t quite believe that, somehow), but the law would come after them much harder.  And to make things worse, Myers actually cleared the job with the local chapter of The Outfit, and they’re going to get a percentage of the proceeds (nobody there can believe he thinks that’s what real heisters do).

He’s got what’s described as an eastern boarding school accent, and he’s got all these props and notes, reminiscent of Edgars from The Score, but not out to settle an old score this time.  Still not a guy whose professionalism can be trusted–on any level.  Grofield wants to work, but not that much.   He’s outta there.

He’s joined by the one heister there he’s worked with before, Dan Leach, a big tough taciturn fellow, rather like Parker, but not nearly as smart.  Dan feels like doing some gambling before he flies home, and wins a nice pile at the craps tables.  Then two guys show up at Grofield’s motel room, looking for the money.  When they realize he doesn’t have it, they knock him out.  Then Dan wakes him up, mad as hell, because the same two guys robbed him, and he figures Grofield tipped them.  Grofield knows better–it was Myers and his flunky.  Dan heads off looking for them, and Grofield heads home sourly, brooding on those lemons.

Mead Grove, Indiana: Grofield is back home at his threadbare community theater (a converted barn, like Mickey and Judy used to sing and dance in) that he bought with the money from the Cockaigne heist.  The same money,  we should remember, that was delivered to Mary by a beautiful blonde Philadelphian in support stockings who had just spent several weeks in bed with Mary’s husband, and no we never do find out how that went over.

So he’s washing out flats, and thinking about how he’s going to come up with the roughly 10g’s he needs to put on a season of repertory (he’d hate to have to only do public domain stuff), and then Dan Leach drives up and turns out he’s got Myers in the trunk, and is debating what to do with him.   Grofield figures he should either kill him or let him go.    Grofield also kind of wishes Dan had left him out of it.  He refuses to put Myers on ice until Dan can figure something out, so Dan heads off, with Myers still en-trunked.

(Sidebar: Trying to convince Leach and Grofield that he can be useful to them, Myers tells a story about a new heist, involving an apartment full of money stolen by some guys who are serving a long stretch in prison near L.A.   They dug a tunnel, and they go out at night and do little heists, stow the cash, then go back to their cells.  They’re trying to build up a nest egg for their families, since they’re too old to feel like living on the outside again.  It turns out Myers was just making it all up, but Grofield thinks it’s a nice story, all the same.   So did Westlake, who actually got a letter from a convict fan of his, telling a similar story–he made much more extensive use of it in a later book, that I like even better than this one–Stark doesn’t always top Westlake–not by any means).

What follows the departure of Leach and Myers is a very cozy domestic scene (domestic by Grofield standards, anyway), with Grofield and Mary having a nice meal together, cooked on a hot plate, and then he and Mary have a nice married screw, and fall asleep wrapped around each other, on a sofa located onstage (this would definitely not play in Peoria).  He’s different with her, it must be said.   He’s always putting on a mask with the other women, and with her he’s just–Grofield. Whoever that is.

We’re told he’s out of his mind for her, and we believe it, and we still know he’ll be cheating on her next time he meets some fetching blonde in another state, and being no dummy maybe she knows it too, and doesn’t care that much, as long as it’s not happening where she can see it.  He’ll always come back to her.  Until he doesn’t, of course.  She had a pretty good idea what she was getting into, one surmises, when she saw him coming into the switchboard room in Copper Canyon, wearing a mask, and carrying a gun.  A ‘meet cute’ they call it in the movies.

So Grofield wakes up with his wife’s neat compact little body wrapped around him, and hears a noise, and turns out it’s Dan Leach, and he’s been stabbed a few times.  Myers got the jump on him–these Stark amateurs have their moments.  Grofield and Mary take care of him for a few weeks, and then Grofield gets a call about a job in St. Louis, and it sounds like a good one.   Summer repertory, here we come.  So he leaves Mary alone there, still tending to Leach, and we all know this is not a good idea, but work is work.

St. Louis: This is the heist part of the book, and enjoy it, because it’s the only heist we ever see Grofield pull in any of his solo adventures.  About damn time, Stark.

Grofield checks into the hotel in St. Louis, where there’s a message for him to go to a bar in East St. Louis, and Westlake did love to write about that Jekyll & Hyde of a twin city, with the prim proper Vincente Minnelli town on the Missouri side of the river, and the nasty gritty good time town over on the Illinois side.

So after finding his contact at the bar, they head for the meet, where he gets the lowdown, from a good group of pros–there’s this supermarket, not far out of town, Food King (there is an actual Food King in Baltimore, but probably no relation, and no they didn’t get looted last month, far as I can tell).

Grofield got his start robbing a supermarket, you’ll recall.   This one’s near a military base, and everybody there gets paid by check, so twice a month the supermarket needs to have a lot of cash on hand, because the military wives need to cash the checks and buy a lot of groceries.   Why do I like reading about this kind of job so much better than some elaborate casino heist or like that?  Somehow, Stark is always at his best in relatively mundane surroundings.

The money is in a big old safe, that one of the crew knows how to crack.  There was an attempted heist a few years back, some soldiers who didn’t know what they were doing and got caught, so the sheriff’s deputies watch the place closely, and it’s going to take some careful planning, but it’s doable.  Grofield is no planner, but he can see that in spite of a few irregularities (meeting too close to the scene of the crime), this is going to work out okay.   We’ve all seen how Stark sets these things up–there’s yet another road trip to buy a truck–that makes how many now?–and it never gets old.  This is the longest section of the book, very satisfying to read, but also the most predictable, so I’ll just skip ahead now.

They get the money–nothing huge, 13k a man, but that’s all Grofield needs.  There’s a message at the hotel desk from Mary–several, in fact. He goes up to his room, and guess who’s there–Myers and a new sideman, name of Brock–Myers murdered the last one, and Grofield tries to tell Brock about that, but does anybody ever listen to Grofield when he’s handing out good advice?  He’s the Cassandra of crime.

So there’s a struggle, and he loses the suitcase with the money, but he gets away.   Those lemons are just brutally truthful, you know?  Would it kill them to lie a little sometimes?

Moving: Grofield gets back to Mary, knowing from what little she could tell him over the phone that something went terribly wrong–he can guess–Myers showed up and got his location out of her.   But he left her alive, and in his laconic way, Stark makes you understand that part of Grofield would have died with her.  Leach, of course, got finished off for keeps–there is something to be said for Parker’s policy of killing anybody who takes money away from him on general principle–Leach just wasn’t a killer at heart, so he got done in by a lousy amateur, who didn’t follow the playbook.

Grofield finds Mary in the actress’ dressing room–she’s as much a professional as him, of course.  One reason she means more to him than anyone else.  She really took one for the team this time.

She was sitting at the make-up table, doing nothing, and when he walked into the room their eyes met in the mirror and he saw no expression in her face at all.  He’d never seen her face so completely empty before, and he thought, That’s what she’ll look like in her coffin.  And he ran across the room to pull her to her feet and clamp his arms tightly around her, as though she were in danger of freezing to death and he had to keep her warm.

At first she was unmoving and unalive, and then she began violently to tremble, and finally she began to cry, and then she was all right.

They were together fifteen minutes before they started to talk.  Grofield had made soothing noises and said words to reassure her before that, but there had been no real talk.  Now she said, “I don’t want to tell you about it.  Is it all right?”

“It’s all right.”  She was sitting again, and he was on one knee in front of her, rubbing his hands up and down her arms, still as though trying to keep her warm and alive.

“I don’t want to talk about it ever.”

“You don’t have to.  I know what happened; I don’t need the details.”

She looked at him, and her expression was odd–intense, and somehow sardonic.  She said, “You know what happened?”

He didn’t understand.  They’d come here, Myers and Brock.  They’d killed Dan Leach.  They’d forced Mary to tell them where Grofield was, and what name he was using.  What else?

She saw his face change when he realized what else, and she closed her eyes.  Her whole face closed, it seemed; it went back to the expression he’d seen when he’d first walked in here.

He pulled her close again.  “All right,” he said.  “All right.”

Somehow you know this would never happen to Claire.  Not that you’d need to actually rape Claire to have Parker coming after you with death in his mind.   But Grofield isn’t Parker–his mind doesn’t work that way.  Steal from him, try to kill him, even threaten his wife, and he may have unkind thoughts about you, but he won’t necessarily feel the need to come after you.   He’s not the vengeance type, and he’s not a wolf in human form, either.  He kills when he has to, not to scratch an itch in his head.  But this is different.   Possibly the only person in the world he gives a damn about, other than himself, has been violated.   Even if he’s just playing a role here, it’s a role that was first cast a long time before the theater came into being.

They make love later on–just to take the bad taste out of both their mouths.  Mary doesn’t really want him to go after Myers, but then again, maybe she does a bit, and he’s going either way.   She says she’ll go stay with actor friends of theirs in New York, and start recruiting talent for their next season–keep her mind occupied, and Grofield will know she’s safe.  In the meantime, he’s got to go ‘drum somebody out of the corps’ as he puts it.  Always the actor, most of all when he means every word he’s saying.

He heads over to Pennsylvania in his own car (because this isn’t a job–it’s personal) to pick up some guns from a guy named Recklow, who runs a riding stable, and we’re told used to be an actor in cowboy movies before the blacklist got him (perhaps just a bit of a nod to Bucklin Moon there).   Turns out Grofield is an expert rider (of course he is).  Recklow comes to meet him up in the woods, with the goods.  Grofield buys a Smith & Wesson Terrier–Parker’s go-to weapon–and a Colt Trooper 357, with a long barrel–the latter he clips underneath the dashboard of his Chevy Nova.

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(It’s a used Nova–we’re not told what year, so no image.  Guns don’t tend to change much.)

He stops at Leach’s house in Oklahoma, and finds Mrs. Leach with her throat cut–she was the only other person Grofield knows about who had contact info for Myers.  Myers making sure Grofield can’t track him.   Grofield tosses the house, and finds Leach’s getaway cash, a thousand bucks.  He takes it and torches the house–with Mrs. Leach inside it.  Can’t have the cops investigating a murder that might lead to him.  Well, maybe she wanted to be cremated anyway.

Still moving, over the border in Texas, he stops and calls Handy McKay at his diner in Maine–they’ve met a few times, with Parker (so maybe Parker did get to the diner at some point).  Handy’s still out of the game, but he agrees to ask around about Myers and Brock–he finds a guy, some minor-leaguer, who knows Brock, and was asked to come in on the brewery job, and figured it smelled bad–Grofield can’t believe Myers is still trying to pull off that turkey.  But now he knows where he’s headed–well, in the world of Richard Stark, it does seem all roads eventually lead to–

Monequois, New York: It rains.  A lot.   I’ve vacationed in the Adirondacks, and trust me when I say that’s very true to life.  Grofield locates Myers and his motley crew of semi-pros, and quickly figures out that Myers intends to doublecross them all and take the entire payroll for himself.  He makes this clear to one of them, named Morton, who he grabs from the hideout under cover of night, forcing him to fill in the fine details of Myers’ plan.   Grofield intends to heist this heist, assuming it goes off as planned, but Myers dies either way.

(We all know he’s not getting any 120g’s, because he could do like 10-12 years of rep with that–if Westlake had intended this to be the last Grofield,  even the last one for a while, then he’d have gotten the big score.)

Morton is a likable enough idiot, and Grofield doesn’t kill him, just leaves him tied to a tree, while he goes down to the real hideout, to settle with Myers and Brock.  Only by the time they get back (with the body of a dead accomplice in the car, who they killed), they seem to have had a falling out, and they quickly get into a fight–Grofield just watches them try to kill each other from a handy hayloft for a while, before Myers, fleeing the more dangerous Brock, sees him up there, and then falls to the ground below, where Brock dispatches him.  So really, Grofield just gets an assist, but he’ll take it.

Brock doesn’t know if Myers was telling the truth about Grofield being in the hayloft, but he figures he’ll take no chances, and makes a run for it–Grofield cuts him down with the Terrier, and interrogates him.   The heist, red fire engine and all, was a goddam comic opera.  There was no payroll, just twenty-seven hundred in petty cash.  The brewery went back to checks.  Myers never thought to make sure.  Lots of people dead, the brewery in flames, the whole countryside up in arms–for nothing.  Amateurs always think they know it all.  That’s what happened in Iraq, you know.   Speaking of heists gone wrong.  Oh never mind.

Grofield searches Myers, and finds the twenty-seven hundred, plus a few thousand of Grofield’s Food King money–he spent all the rest on a scheme out of the comic books.  Combined with the money he found at the Leach house, he’s got just enough to open this season.  Then somebody knocks him out from behind.

It was Morton–he got free, and made his play.  Grofield wakes up, and Morton’s getting into Grofield’s car.  Grofield then plays on his sympathies–he’s groggy, the law is closing in, Morton has his gun, and after all, if not for Grofield, Morton would be dead or in cuffs by now.  Morton, a much less vindictive amateur than Myers, feeling magnanimous in victory, says sure, come along.  They head for Canada in the Nova, and of course what Morton doesn’t know is that there’s a Colt Trooper clipped to the underside of the dashboard.  Never bet against the professional in a Stark book.

But Grofield figures that can wait.  Morton won’t be hard to handle.  He goes to sleep, perhaps dreaming of summer, playing alongside his one true leading lady, on their shabby little stage.  Shabby it may be, but it’s theirs, and theirs alone.

Would you believe I did that long intro, then summarized the whole book, with several substantial quotes along the way, and I’m not quite 5,000 words in?  That’s Stark for you.

So, having tinkered with this character over the course of seven years, and six novels (counting the two Parkers), Westlake seems to have finally ironed out the kinks, gotten out of the beta-testing phase–he’s figured out how to make Grofield a Stark protagonist while still letting him be Grofield.  He’s planted him firmly in that same edgy criminal community Parker lives and kills in, established a base of operations, and fleshed out Mary as a character (and in the words of Spencer Tracy, what’s there is cherce).  The fact is, Grofield never needed to be a swashbuckling adventurer, a reluctant detective, a secret agent.   That was interesting enough in its way, but this is far more so.

And having finally solved the problem of Grofield, it just seems like he lost interest in him–Westlake was like that, sometimes.   Grofield made a quick cameo in Slayground, speaking the same lines he had in the opening chapter of The Blackbird.  Then he made his final curtain call in Butcher’s Moon.  He was never mentioned in any of the eight much later novels featuring Parker.

Westlake never decided he was dead, but we’re certainly free to think that he is.  Or that Mary, after the events of Butcher’s Moon, finally decided to lay down the law and make him quit the heisting life.   Or maybe he changed his name to Greenwood, and took some TV jobs.  No, not that last one–not in Stark’s jurisdiction–he’d have to go somewhere else.  Somewhere a bit less–exacting.

Anyway, even if we were told he was dead, there are several Stark heisters who were supposed to have kicked it, who showed up alive and well later on.  You can think anything you want about a character who leaves the stage and never returns.  Maybe Rosencrantz and Guildenstern aren’t really dead.   Those ambassadors could have been misinformed, or lying.  Who really knows?  Did you know W.S. Gilbert (sans Arthur Sullivan) wrote a play in which Rosencrantz had Guildenstern get rid of Hamlet, so he could marry Ophelia?  I bet Westlake did.

I know something else–Westlake didn’t think much of the next book on our list–called it a doorstop–and I tend to agree.   For the first time since starting this blog, I’m not looking forward to rereading a book of his.   And yet, having read it, I know there are things of interest inside of it.   Anyway, I’ll be chipping away at it next week, in my spare time–at the office.  Of course.  Enjoy your weekend, Nephews.  And Nieces.

PS: Since this is the last Grofield review (so sad), let’s have one last cover gallery–the first edition (from World Publishing, Grofield apparently having worn out his welcome at MacMillan) that you see above left, was almost embarrassingly on the nose–the Hard Case crime paperback cover art above right is a thing of beauty (though when I first saw it, I feared for Mary).   European publishers did their usual not terribly relevant shtik (somehow there’s always some lemon yellow in there somewhere, though I supposed that’s mostly a felicitous coincidence).

As usual, I like the Serie Noire version best.  With Stark, minimalism is almost always the best policy.   Like I’m in any position to throw stones.

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Filed under Donald Westlake novels

24 responses to “Review: Lemons Never Lie

  1. A fine summation of the best Grofield stand-along (by a considerable margin). I think you’ve got it exactly right. It’s so clearly a Stark novel, with a plot and setting that could easily work for Parker, but with a protagonist who is so clearly NOT Parker. Parker would never play the slots, of course. (“Turn myself over to random events?”, Parker would reflect, much later, when forced to articulate his thoughts on gambling. “Why? The point is to try to control events, and they’ll still get away from you anyway. Why make things worse? Jump out a window, see if a mattress truck goes by. Why? Only if the room’s on fire.” As fine and concise an argument against gambling as I’ve ever come across.) And even if he did somehow find himself winning a few nickels on a slot machine (accidentally, perhaps), Parker wouldn’t feel the slightest twinge of superstition about it. “Bad luck,” Grofield mutters, and it’s this moment more than any other that cements the casting (in my mind) of a young Kevin Kline, who repeatedly utters that phrase in the wonderful “Silverado.” But I digress.

    (A small correction to your post. You write: “Then he made his final curtain call in Deadly Edge.” You mean, of course, Butcher’s Moon.)

    In addition to “Lemons Never Lie” being the Grofield novel that feels most authentically Starkian, it’s also the Grofield novel that feels the most authentically Grofieldian, with Grofield in his element — both of his elements, coolly professional “on the job,” and also reflecting on his craft, staying in character during the heist, and being mindful of small details such as doing the pricing properly when posing as a grocery store clerk. THIS is the Grofield I know from the Parker novels. Happy to see you again, old boy. I missed you while your cranky doppelganger was out gallivanting around the world in borrowed genre garb.

    • He’s a lot more serious in this one than in his first two appearances–much less inclined to joke around (doesn’t sound like Groucho at all here), and only once does he do that thing where he pretends he’s in a movie, and hears background music. Apparently this doesn’t violate his rule about not combining his two professions–nor does using make-up to disguise himself, as we saw one of Parker’s associates do in the beginning of The Sour Lemon Score.

      I know what you mean about gambling, but I don’t think Grofield is really gambling either in Vegas–as he sees it, hitting that airport slot machine is paying his dues to Vegas–definitely superstitious, but show me an actor who isn’t. “Break a leg.” “I’m going to play MacDuff in The Scottish Play this season.” Most criminals in Stark’s world are superstitious (in Batman’s world as well).

      Parker isn’t, because he is himself a force beyond human reckoning. But he doesn’t mind losing a few bucks on roulette–if there’s a beautiful woman there with him, who’ll be more in the mood afterwards because of the gambling. He trusts to his strange luck all the time, but to grab a line from one of my favorite Harryhausen Sinbad movies, “Trust in Allah–but tie up your camel!”

      Westlake is ready to really do something with the character–but then he doesn’t. Except for Butcher’s Moon. And you see how easy that kind of thing can happen when you’re typing fast? By the bye, what’s a ‘stand-along’? 🙂

  2. I’ve seen that quote about plot structure before, and never quite entirely sure, where all of the balls bounce. The first bounce is the Vegas chapter, ending with Myers’s henchmen beating up Grofield. The second bounce is the heist, ending with Brock robbing Grofield. Or ending with Myers raping Mary. Perhaps all of it together, if it has to be bigger than bounce one. The third bounce is Grofield going after Myers and Brock and end with his making them dead. The Morton bit after that is more of a coda.

    Is it new? Doc Smith’s Lensmen series has a similar structure, though with four parts rather than three. Three times Kim Kinnison things he’s defeated the bad guys, but it turns out that the ones he beat are just fronts for stronger, eviler bad guys, who’ll have to be dealt with in the next book. In the last book, he destroys the home planet of the read baddies, crushing it between two other planets he’d brought along for just that purpose, which I think counts as one damned big bounce.

    • Is this even new for Stark? Weren’t there several bounces in The Hunter? First he finds Lynn (bounce one), then he finds Mal (bounce two), then he gets and subsequently loses his money from The Outfit (bounce three), and the coda is him getting it back once more with that final heist, and then he’s relaxing on the train, thinking about enjoying the money. There’s no flashback here, but the structure isn’t that different otherwise. Westlake was making a very fine distinction that for the reader isn’t all that obvious.

      Obviously there are no new plots, but he’s claiming a new plot structure, and maybe it was new for him. But his memory was not at its best when he typed that. I think he remembered writing the book and feeling good about the way it turned out, and it seemed new to him at the time.

      I have read a lot of space opera, but I never could get very far into the Lensman books. Your description sounds awfully reminiscent of so many movies and TV shows I’ve seen, not to mention comics–Smith’s influence is galactically huge (this applies to Cordwainer as much as Doc). If only his prose was better.

      • Mike Schilling

        Or his characters had even two dimensions. I think it’s one of those things you have to read at twelve, and if you do you’ll love it forever. (It was out of print then, so I didn’t get to it until my thirties, alas.)

  3. You might recall that the first time we meet Grofield, he keeps saying “All fools in a circle”, which I assumed was a quote from some well-known play. In fact, when I Google it, all I see is The Score. However, “Call fools into a circle” is from Act II, Scene V of As You Like It, so it looks like Grofield is amusing himself with wordplay.

    • I knew it was something like that, but had not tracked it down. Westlake never tired of calling on his brief sojourn in summer rep for material. But far as I can tell, the only time he ever wrote about actors actually acting in summer rep was in his Phil Crawford sleazes–maybe a few others (Pity Him Afterwards just shows the preliminaries–they never get to the play). The Holt books and Sacred Monster were about guys who became big movie/tv stars very quickly, and Westlake, like Grofield, feels like what they do isn’t the same thing, even though it takes talent to do it right.

      The meaning of the reference is clear, whether you know its origin or not–Grofield sees the connection between a troupe of players and a string of heisters. And they are a rather motley bunch.

  4. Ray Garraty

    The book starts with the cover, so let’s start with the cover. I think the HCC cover is utterly forgettable. The original cover, on the other hand, is utter junk, but I’ll remember it for ever.
    The Kavanagh’s blurb feels like toss up to a friend. Block told me that he doesn’t even remember this blurb and considers the best Stark Butcher’s Moon, not LNL.

    • I had little doubt about that. Block is a huge Parker fan, and obviously would prefer most of the Parkers to any Grofield (perhaps this is why he did the blurb under a pseudonym).

      But this tends to substantiate the notion that Westlake was thinking about doing more Grofields after this one–otherwise, why bother touting it? New publisher (a Times Mirror company), possibly a whole new string of novels, but it never happened. The book probably didn’t sell that well (not a lot of first editions floating around), World may have decided they didn’t want any more. Westlake didn’t have time to find a third home for Grofield.

      Then the Stark voice went away for a long time. When it came back, the world had changed–it had become too damn easy to find people, particularly people with extremely uncommon family names who worked as actors most of the time. Parker had to adapt to that new world, with difficulty, but it was impossible to see how Grofield ever could. He had to stay back in that pre-digital age. Which I suspect is where he wanted to stay. Grofield is very analogue. So is Parker, but he always finds a way to remain himself, no matter how things change around him.

      I love the HCC cover–don’t find it the least bit forgettable. We shall agree to disagree, as we so often do. Talking about art is like dancing about architecture. 😉

      • Ray Garraty

        Well, seems you praise all HCC covers while I like only a few of them.
        Your theory of Grofield’s not returning seems plausible. I’ll stick to mine: I believe Grofield died if not in that ambulance car, then right after that. Westlake intentionally left his death out of the novel to let the readers and interpretators start the theories and myths of Grofield’s “life after death”. It was sort of a metagesture. Only with Grofield’s death I can accept Butcher’s Moon. But let’s leave it until your BM review.

        • I just like the retro style they use–and they really do put much more thought and effort into their covers, by and large.

          I wouldn’t call it a theory–like I said, when a character leaves the stage and does not return, you can believe what you want. I really doubt Westlake intended to start any flurry of speculation–he didn’t think like that. If he’d wanted to say Grofield was dead, he’d have said so, in one of the later Parker novels.

          People could still speculate, since after all we were told Wycza was dead and turned out he wasn’t, and then we were pretty much shown Ed Mackey’s death, and he was back in the next book, with no explanation coming until much later–was that to start people speculating as to why he was still around, or was it just that Westlake needed to call in every one of Parker’s old cronies he hadn’t definitively finished off? I’m almost surprised Salsa didn’t turn up.

          He hated to kill his protagonists–I think you could argue he never really did–not for a dead certainty. Clay is in trouble at the end of The Mercenaries, he’s almost certainly got a contract out on him, but he’s a smart guy, and he’s starting to put it together–he could have gotten out of there, grabbed his girl, headed for Canada or parts beyond.

          Tim Smith is about to be shot at the end of Killing Time, and I have to believe he’s dead because there really is no way out after what he’s done–but it’s not like the end of your typical Jim Thompson noir, where you realize the narrator has been telling his story to some minor demon in some receiving room in Hell. At the very least, Jim Thompson would have had Tim lying there in the gutter, riddled with bullets, waiting for the coup de grace. Westlake didn’t like to take it that far.

          He had some very dark endings, and he certainly wrote a lot of death scenes, but he did not like to kill the characters he most strongly identified with. Make of that what you will. The only protagonist of his we’re definitely told is dead, we’re not even told this in one of his books–it’s in an unrelated book, and it sounds a bit dubious to me–not at all the way I’d expect that character to go. More like dark humor than a statement of fact. Frankly, I think that was directed at the publisher of the books that character appeared in. But we’ll worry about those books later.

          • Ray Garraty

            Grofield for us is like Schrödinger’s cat, he’s neither dead or alive. As long as we read these Grofield novels, we’ll argue about his existence. But let’s leave it until Butcher’s Moon.

            If talk about Lemons, it’s everyone’s favorite among Grofield books. I can hardly imagine anyone who might prefer, say, The Damsel, over LNL. It’s also everyone’s point of view that this is a Grofield novel which reads like a Parker novel. That may be so, if we consider the overall tone and style. (The Westlake’s remark about new plot structure is all bullshit, of course.)

            But that is not why I like and value this book so much. In the first three books Grofield was a hero of old style novel, the novel that is a heir to knight’s novel, where the hero is a traveller, a means to learn about the world, a mere function, without any inside world. Grofield was merely a vessel, that was filled with those features, emotions and character qualities that the author granted his hero to better show the world. There was not any depht to the protagonist and the books. Parker in some novels was also a voyager through another world, underworld. (But not in all of them, mind you.)
            Now, here Grofield became the hero of new style novel, realistic novel. The domestic element made Grofield not just a vessel, but something close to a real human being. He travels here, but he returns home, cares about his home and wife, his feelings for the first time become bare. He took roots, he for the first time shows his two faces, mask face and real face.
            The domesticity of prodigal hero brings Lemons closer to realism. And that brings LNL to a whole new level. The danger feels real, the conflict appears: can Grofield shake off his humorist mask and get revenge or he will swallow his grudge and maybe this grudge then ruin his marriage? Is Grofield a coward?
            That’s what makes it so good.

            • I don’t think we’re left in very suspense very long about what Grofield will do after he finds out what happened to Mary. But yes, I think you have it exactly right–Grofield feels much more like a person than a contrivance here. There isn’t that sense here that we find in the earlier books, where he almost seems to know he’s a character caught up in the clockworks of somebody’s contrived storyline. It’s more naturalistic, less meta.

              Now I’d argue he felt like a person in the first two Parkers he appeared in–particularly The Score–it’s not as if Westlake was learning how to write well-rounded characters, he’d been doing that for years by then. He deliberately chose, in those first three Grofields, to limit Grofield’s emotional range, to make him less real, more like something out of farce–or if you prefer, like James Bond (who has never seemed at all like a real person to me, though Fleming tried hard to make him one).

              That’s the intended effect, because Westlake is playing around with different genres. Grofield is pure selfishness in those first three books. As Parker was when we first met him, but it’s harder to dislike Parker for that, because he’s so different from us. He’s not putting on any masks–you can no more blame him for being what he is than you’d blame a shark, an eagle, or a wolf.

              Here, in the type of story Stark is known for–the type of story you might argue Stark defines–he brings back the Grofield we first met, only more developed, and not in Parker’s shadow. What do these two books have in common? Mary. Something about Mary (heh) brings out Grofield’s human side. Makes him take off the masks he always wears around others.

              You may remember that a member of Grofield’s string in St. Louis is watching him phone Mary, and he knows right away that Grofield is talking to his wife–he says his face relaxes. He doesn’t have to be on his guard with her.

              There’s some similar language in Deadly Edge (written around the same time as this one, I’d guess), regarding Parker feeling more relaxed when he’s at the house in New Jersey, with Claire. And there’s this underlying sense that both men need this, but it’s a danger to them–they can only let their guards down so much. And only with one person. Stark never lets them get too comfortable. And each having invested so deeply in another person, he has to worry about her, as well as himself. Doubly vulnerable.

              And of course, Grofield fucks a cute librarian in his next appearance, without even the slightest hint of husbandly guilt, so this is not about sex. This is about trust. Not the same thing. Well, perhaps Mary has her little secrets too.

              • Ray Garraty

                He was out of a farce – old style novel, pre-realism. And in Parker novels he was only a clown figure, a carnival man, who can lighten up grim plots.
                In LNL we see him in domestic life, the novel itself is a slice of a life of a criminal at home. There is enough action to keep us entertained, yet something bigger is going on, that in one book reveals more about the character than the three previous novels.
                Yes, there is the same leitmotif of home life in Deadly Edge. I didn’t want to mention it, because it might lead us away from Grofield to Parker. It’s almost the same book, only about two different characters. And if we looked at the aborted jobs, we could spot the resemblance with Plunder Squad.

  5. Not responding to anyone here, but I did want to mention this–yet again we have a scene with a pack of Doberman Pinschers pacing around restlessly in a compound where some Stark heisters are going to buy a truck. Last time this happened, it was Claire in the car with Parker, terrified of the dogs. This time, Grofield is the one feelng nervous–but the dogs know their business. They won’t kill anybody their master doesn’t want them to kill. The first time we saw this kind of scene, it was just one rangy cur when Parker went to get a car from Chemy in The Outfit.

    This seems like more than just recycling old plot elements. Again, I must point out that Westlake was clearly afraid of certain types of dogs–while at the same time recognizing how useful they could be. In a Dortmunder novel, he could play this for laughs–laughing at himself, really–at his own fears. In a Stark novel, he’s not kidding around. Big mean-looking dogs scare the spit out of him. Well, that’s true of a lot of people. Me, I go up and pet pit bulls on the street (well, I ask permission first). They’re just big goofy puppies. 🙂

    • Ray Garraty

      Never was a dog person. Had not very pleasurable experience with pit bulls as a kid. My granddad had a German Shepherd, whose name could be roughly translated as Thug. It died after a year granddad died.

      • Westlake might have had some similar experiences. If he’d just finished and published that autobiography of his, we might know more. But dogs keep cropping up in his books, and never in a friendly way–until the very end. He does seem to feel some measure of fascination, perhaps even envy towards those who don’t fear them, though–and he respects the abilities of dogs, their professionalism, if you will.

  6. Anthony

    Regarding Westlake’s plot structure idea: no comment

    However, in the last 2 or 3 Dortmunder books, he did something I’ve not seen from any other writer. He used creative verbs in place of the word “said.” The best example I can think of off the top of my head is

    “Holy Shit,” Stan realized.

    I’m willing to nominate Westlake to the Economy of Writing Hall of Fame for this invention. Is there a Second?

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