Tag Archives: Alan Grofield

Review: Butcher’s Moon, Part 2



They put him in the back seat of the Impala and drove away from the motel, Parker at the wheel and Grofield occasionally glancing back at Abadandi.  After several blocks, Grofield said, in a troubled and unhappy way “Goddamnit.”

“What’s the matter?”

“Now he’s bleeding from the ear.”

“Put some paper on it.”

Grofield opened the glove compartment.  “Nothing there.”

“Turn his head then.  We’ll unload him in a couple minutes.”

Grofield adjusted Abadandi’s head.  Parker drove away from the city, looking for a turnoff that might lead to privacy.  They were going to be late to Lozini’s, but there wasn’t any help for it.  Sunday morning traffic was light and mostly slow-moving; family groups.

“I feel sorry for the bastard,” Grofield said.

Parker glanced at him and looked back at the road.  “If I’d slept late this morning,” he said, “he could be feeling sorry for you by now.”

“An hour ago I was getting laid back there,” Grofield said.  “Jesus, his skin looks bad.”

Parker kept driving.

There’s no such thing as a Butcher’s Moon.  It’s something Westlake made up himself, responding to the old tradition of naming the full moons for each specific time of year–it’s something the first Americans started here, and the European settlers emulated and added to, but the idea seems to have occurred independently in many cultures.   Many variations exist.  There’s a Harvest Moon, a Hunter’s Moon–and a Wolf Moon (that’s in the dead of winter).  But none of these are a Butcher’s Moon.  Because a Butcher’s Moon is no moon at all.  Some things are best done in darkness.

I might as well mention here that somebody optioned this novel for a film version in 1996.  Variety reported at the time that Lumiere Films, which produced Leaving Las Vegas, had shelled out for the rights, attached Steve Shagan, the screenwriter for Primal Fear to write the screenplay, and that same film’s producer, Gary Lucchesi, to produce it (the film had not come out yet).  Lumiere CEO Randolph Pitts (it’s wrong to make fun of people’s names) said Butcher’s Moon was ‘one of Westlake’s grittiest efforts.’

“Lila Cazes, who’s head of production, and myself are developing a number of things with Gary and he suggested this book, which Westlake did under the pseudonym he used to write his hardest-hitting crime books,” said Pitts.  “Then, Gary suggested we meet with Steve Shagan after they’d done Primal Fear.”

We are further informed that Westlake (who is not quoted in Variety, because hey, he’s just the novelist), was repped by Gary Salt of Paul Kohner Agency.  And nothing more was ever heard of this film, nor shall be in all the eons to come.

Could be any number of reasons for that, but I’d certainly suspect one of them was that it’s one of the worst possible choices for a film adaptation (the worst possible choice probably being Flashfire).  It’s the least self-contained of the Parker novels, the one where the reader depends most on his or her memories of the books before it.  Now I would not say you couldn’t enjoy reading it if you’d never read a Parker novel before–but I can’t imagine how anyone doing so wouldn’t feel like dropping everything to find all those earlier books, and fill in all the gaps in his or her knowledge of that fictional world and its hard-boiled denizens.  That may be one of the reasons Westlake wrote it that way, but I don’t think it’s the only one.

I wonder if Shagan ever completed any drafts of a screenplay?  A treatment, at least?  I’d be interested to see what he did with it–how he tried to somehow collapse the plot into a film-able unit without having any previous films to refer back to.  He was a novelist himself (he wrote Save The Tiger, and then adapted it into the Jack Lemmon movie that I have yet to see).  He wrote the screenplays for a number of well known films, such as Voyage of the Damned, and he did some mafia stuff, and no, I don’t think it would have worked.  And if they’d stuck to the original ending, I bet film buffs would have accused them of ripping off The Outfit.  Which might not have been totally out of line.  But let’s get back to the synopsis.

We pick up with Mike Abadandi, one of Lozini’s trigger men in the mobbed up city of Tyler–we met him in Slayground, and the late Mr. Caliato, when he saw Abadandi was going to be helping him go after Parker at Fun Island, evaluated him with one word–“Good.”  He’s a very capable individual, probably the best hitter Lozini’s outfit has at the moment.  And he’s been sent to whack Parker and Grofield at their motel.

Why send one guy after two?  Because whoever wants this done wants it done quietly and professionally, with as little fuss and mess as possible.  And because Lozini doesn’t know anything about it.   This is not a properly sanctioned hit.   Meaning that the more guys they use, the more chance there is Lozini will find out before they want him to.

He uses a set of skeleton keys, and lets himself into the motel room, after he sees Grofield go in there, back from his highly athletic extramarital rendezvous with Dori the librarian.  We can sense his professionalism–he’s somebody Parker would be happy to work with, if he wasn’t an organization man.  Grofield is in the shower, singing (tunelessly, we’re told, so I guess he doesn’t do musicals).   Abadandi figures he’ll get Grofield, then look for Parker.  Bird in the hand.

But the other bird is in the closet–Parker saw Abadandi lurking around from his room, and set a trap for him.  Abadandi realizes Parker is coming at him, and is looking at his eyes, not the gun in his hand (which is pointed the wrong way), and he has just enough time to realize he’s up against somebody as good as him.  Maybe better, Mike.

What follows is a short violent struggle, and one of the few instances in twenty-four books that we see Parker have a prolonged physical altercation with a worthy opponent–he’s not the type to engage in pointless fisticuffs.   Abadandi doesn’t panic, he gives a good account of himself, but Parker is always a move ahead. Abadandi, who is wearing contacts, gets a hard kick to the head, then as he falls, Parker chops him in the neck with a huge veiny hand, and that’s the last we hear from Abadandi.

Parker hadn’t intended to injure the guy that badly–wanted to get some info out of him first (otherwise he’d have just shot him).  But one of the contacts has gone into his brain or something (I don’t know if this is a real thing, and I don’t want to know).  He’s not talking to anybody, probably ever.  But a look through his pockets clearly shows his affiliations, and Parker and Grofield already have a meet scheduled with Lozini at his house.

Parker and Grofield (who is using the name Green, in a little nod to his alternate universe doppelganger in the Dortmunder novels) show up there, and give Lozini the bad news.  And it’s really bad.  The only way Abadandi could have found their motel is if they were followed from the last meeting they had with him and his closest associates, at the office.  Only his most highly placed people knew about that meeting.  At least one of them made sure there was somebody waiting outside the office building.  Parker can make a very cogent persuasive argument when he wants to–and his argument now is that Lozini can only trust two people in the entire city.

“You’ve got a palace takeover on your hands,” Parker told him.  “That means a group, maybe four or five, maybe a dozen  A group of people inside your organization that want you out and somebody else in.  Somebody who’s already up close to the top, that they want to take your place.”

Lozini took his sunglasses off and massaged his closed eyes with thumb and forefinger.  His eyes still closed, he said “For the first time in my life I know what getting old is.  It’s wanting to be able to call for a time-out.”  He put the sunglasses back on and studied them both.  Their faces were closed to him, and always would be.  “You’re right,” he said.  “You’re the only ones I can trust, because I know exactly where you stand and what you want.”

They discuss the possible suspects, eliminating them one by one–it comes down to Ernie Dulare, who controls offtrack gambling, and Louis ‘Dutch’ Buenadella, who runs the local porno theaters.  Lozini is surprised how much they already know, courtesy of Grofield’s research.  But they all missed a very big important detail, that comes out when Parker asks if Farrell, the mob’s candidate for mayor, would be in on it.   Lozini is bewildered–his candidate is Alfred Wain.  Farrell is the reform candidate they’re trying to beat.  And now Parker begins to see he’s badly misjudged the situation in Tyler.

Coming into town, Parker saw that Farrell had a lot more money behind him, more signs, bigger banners, and figured that meant he was the syndicate’s man–and that he is, but the new syndicate, not the old one.  They were, in fact, using some of Parker and Grofield’s money to finance him, as well as Lozini’s.  That’s part of the take-over.  With their man in place at city hall, they can push Lozini out, and there won’t even be a fight.   Lozini never even saw it coming–until Parker pointed it out to him.  But Parker is angry at himself for not seeing it sooner.  False premises.  Hasty assumptions.  They’ll get you every time.  You have to know the territory.

Is it a bit much, making Parker smarter about politics than Lozini, who has been controlling this city for decades, or even Grofield, who spent hours researching Tyler’s political scene, and has shown some knowledge of politics in past?  Should a wolf in human form really know so much about the way our power structures work?   Technically, wolves are all about politics–who has the power in the pack at a given moment–it’s a lot more complicated than people think.  It’s not just Alphas and Omegas.  Nobody knows better than a wolf how transitory power can be, how quickly it can change allegiance.

Watch two dogs smelling each other, sizing each other up, sensing subtle changes that we’re entirely oblivious to.  They know far more about us than we about them–always watching us, even when they seem not to be.  We are, after all, their source of sustenance.  But see, dogs give a damn about us.  Parker doesn’t.

Basically, Parker knows what he needs to know about us to survive in our world. He’s always evaluating the situation, the battlefields he makes his living upon, which happen to be our communities, because that’s where the money is.  His mind functions more efficiently without all the distractions that plague the rest of us–but he can still make mistakes.  He’s been too focused on what he wants (the money), and hadn’t given enough thought to what others might be wanting.   And now he’s off-balance, wrong-footed.  He’s got a new enemy, whose name he doesn’t even know.  He’s got to fix that, and quickly.

Next chapter is from the perspective of George Farrell, local furniture magnate, pillar of the community, who has become bored with the family business, and consequently developed a taste for politics (tell me if you’ve heard this one before).  To further this end, he’s made a deal with known criminals–they’ll get him into power, and he’ll do their bidding, but he figures once he has the power, he can handle them just fine. What he can’t handle is two guys pretending to be his new security detail, who turn out to be Parker and Grofield.  His self-assurance cracks quickly under the weight of Parker’s fists.   He blurts out the name of his patron–Louis Buenadella.

And now we’re with Harold Calesian, detective first grade on Tyler’s police force, and a trusted member of Lozini’s inner circle–he’s in with Buenadella, of course.  Having picked a side, he intends to do all he can to make sure everything works out as planned, and to that end, he’s the one who murdered Officer O’Hara, who knew too much about what happened that night at the amusement park, two years ago.  He’s just back from murdering Paul Dunstan, the other cop there that night, who tried (too late) to get clean, get away, get free.  There was about one chance in a million that Dunstan would ever have been a problem for Calesian.  One chance too many.   Some people really do make murder the answer to everything.

He gets to his apartment, and Lozini is there waiting for him.  Lozini knows whoever is behind the coup wouldn’t have made a move without getting their top cop on his side.  He wants Calesian to tell him who it is.  If Calesian won’t tell him, Lozini will start shooting him in various non-fatal areas of his anatomy.  Lozini is done fooling around.

Lozini’s arc in this book is interesting–he’s become aware, very suddenly, of how much he’s allowed himself to slip–too many years of playing the part of respectable citizen–over time, you become the person you pretend to be.  The old gangster has lost his edge.  This is the first time in decades he’s even held a gun in his hand.  But he’s still dangerous.

Lozini doesn’t like to be pushed, but he doesn’t really want a fight either.  This is his identity crisis.  He’s trapped between two versions of himself–the ruthless man he used to be, and the easy-going amateur chef who pulls the strings from a safe distance, and has long avoided any direct use of violence, because it didn’t make sense for a man in his position to take that kind of risk.  That man he used to be is still down there inside of him–as was the case with Bronson, when Parker came for him, years before–but the reflexes have dulled.  Memory isn’t enough.

He tells Calesian he’s just about ready to retire, leave town, play shuffleboard.   But he can’t accept being forced out by an underling.  He wants to make some kind of deal, come to an arrangement.  This is his mistake.  This is why he’s about to die.  Because you can’t have it both ways.   You can’t have absolute power, and then just bargain it away at your convenience.  In this kind of business, you’re all the way in, or all the way out.  Kings don’t get to retire.  A fellow named Lear could have told him that.  Different mob.

Calesian is finished if he tells Lozini he’s working for Buenadella, and a cripple if he won’t.   So he feeds him a lie, says it’s the other possible, Ernie Dulare.  That gets Lozini off balance, thinking about something other than Calesian, who says he’s got something in his bag that will prove he’s telling the truth–what he’s got is the same gun he used to kill Dunstan.  Lozini takes just a second too long figuring out what’s happening.  Well, he probably wouldn’t have enjoyed shuffleboard much, anyway.  Stupid game.

So next we’re with Buenadella the porn merchant, get a bit of his background–he’s the new style of ganglord.  All business.   We’ve seen this dichotomy before in Westlake’s work (361, The Outfit, etc).  When gangsters start going legit, they stop being gangsters.  Difference is, Buenadella, who got his start in the mafia, never really was a gangster at heart.  The coup he’s planned is supposed to be bloodless.   He’s not out to whack anybody.  He really thought that could work.  Then Farrell tells him about Parker and Grofield–who suddenly show up at his house, armed.  So much for that plan.

Grofield can’t believe how tacky the house is–like a bad stage set.  It’s reminiscent of how Westlake described Vigano’s house in Cops and Robbers.  Too many clashing elements, the elegant alongside the vulgar, indicative of nouveau riche tastes.  But he’s got to focus on what’s happening–Parker is tired of the run-around.  He wants their 73 grand, and Buenadella, since he now wants to be the man in charge, is going to cough it up or die.

Thing is, Buenadella spent a lot of that money from the amusement park on this coup of his.  He didn’t need it to pull the coup off successfully, it was just a convenient piece of extra capital he didn’t want Lozini to get his hands on.  He wishes he’d never seen the money, but hindsight won’t stop Parker from killing him if he can’t pay.  Money is very tight in his organization at the moment because it’s supporting not one but two mayoral campaigns–but he figures he can manage to come up with the cash before the election, somehow.  Just to make these two very frightening individuals go their merry way.

Grofield is privately a bit critical of Parker’s negotiating skills here (if you want to call them that)–he’s thinking you can’t push so hard, or they push back.  He’s dealt with businessmen before, in his acting life.  Let Buenadella come around, see the sense of their proposal.   Between the good and bad cop approach, they get Buenadella to at least tentatively agree to give them what they want.  And as he and Parker are walking out the rear-facing french doors they’d come in through, Grofield gets shot in the chest by a guy he barely glimpses, who was waiting outside.

It spun him around.  Everything went out of focus as he turned, like a special effect in a movie.  He killed me! Grofield thought despairingly, and slid down the invisible glass wall of life.

That’s a death scene, if ever there was one.  Any other Richard Stark character, that’d be the last POV chapter he ever got.  The language is not at all ambiguous, but (spoiler alert) Grofield does not die. So what’s up with that?

Up to this point, you could say this was as much a Grofield novel as a Parker–the conclusion to both sagas–Grofield has been co-protagonist, and in this chapter, he’s even seeming to take control of the partnership for a moment.  In his mind, as has been the case since we first met him, he’s the hero, dramatic music playing in the background as he goes through his paces, rescues the maiden, defeats the bad guys (even though he’s technically a bad guy).  That’s how it plays out in his mind.

But not in Stark’s mind.  That’s the problem–Stark has always preferred Parker–Parker belongs in the world of Richard Stark–Grofield, as I’ve said before, is a Westlake character who wandered into Stark’s realm by mistake, and perhaps outstayed his welcome.

Grofield is respected, by Parker and by Stark, for his skills, his professionalism, his refusal to compromise his craft by working in television and film–but his entire life is a compromise.  Is he an actor or a robber?  A devoted husband or a footloose philanderer?   One foot in sea and one on shore, to one thing constant never.  Which is what an actor needs to be, which is why an actor wrote that line.

I think Westlake, the former spear-carrier in summer theater, always had a soft spot for him–he represents some old fantasies, and is certainly based in part on Westlake’s first-ever series protagonist, the lusty young journeyman actor, Phil Crawford, who appeared in several of Westlake’s sleaze novels (only one of which I’ve read).

But in Stark’s world, Grofield’s been living on borrowed time.  He’s always on the brink of dying, in the Parker novels and his own, only to escape the final reckoning by the skin of his proverbial teeth.  Now the bill has come due.  He’s being rejected by that world, cast forth from it.  Westlake may not intend this, but Stark does, and in a Parker novel, Stark has the final word.

And even though Grofield is clearly referring to the man he saw shoot him when he says “He killed me”, he’s always seemed to me to have just an inkling of the fact that he’s a player on a larger stage, and maybe he knows on some level who really pulled the trigger on him just now.  Any actor knows, when the playwright says you’re dead, you have to lie down–but as Raoul Walsh once wryly quipped, when asked why James Cagney’s bullet-riddled character takes forever to die at the end of The Roaring 20’s, “It’s hard to kill an actor.”

This is all getting rather meta, I know, but the most Westlake, Vishnu to Stark’s Shiva, can do for Grofield is intercede quietly on his creation’s behalf, try to soften the blow.   And there’s only one ‘hero’ in this myth-cycle who can do that for him–Parker.

But Parker’s reaction, as he flees out the front door of Buenadella’s house, protected by the presence of a surveillance van manned by state police, is merely It was too bad about Grofield.  Soldiers die in wars all the time.  He’s got no intention of doing anything about it.   His objective at this point is still just the money.  73 grand would tide him and Claire over for some time.  For him to think about anything else, someone’s going to have to push that button in his head that makes him need to kill whoever pushed it.

Grofield’s shooter was Calesian, who had come to Buenadella’s to tell him about Lozini, saw the car, and realized what was happening–then realized too late that both Parker and Grofield were there, so he didn’t wait for them both to come into view as he lay in wait.   So Parker got away, and now he’s got to deal with a raging Buenadella, who is angry enough that a situation he was about to resolve non-violently has just been escalated.  He’s even more upset when he finds out Lozini is dead.   Killing a boss is a serious business–there’s people at the national level who will be angered by it, since they’re bosses too.

But Buenadella’s power, so newly achieved, is already falling away from him–his business as usual approach doesn’t fit the situation, and it’s not like he’s been elected to anything–he’s only boss if people do what he says.  Calesian begins to realize he can be boss now–he’s the one who took charge when things got tough.  So in spite of his seeming lowly status in the organization, he can take control of the whole shooting match now if he wants, and much to his surprise, he really really wants that.   A cop could be the boss of the local mafia.  Gee, no identity crisis there, right?

But this means he has to pin Lozini’s death on somebody else.  Parker will do nicely as the fall guy.  Buenadella fearfully agrees, not knowing how to do anything else.  He’ll make a good figurehead.  Calesian is making all the plans, and the other powers in the Tyler mob fall in behind him–and accept his story that Parker shot Lozini without question–that will also be the story they tell the national syndicate leaders, like Karns.  But that means they can’t cut a deal with Parker anymore.  They have to kill him to shut him up.  Which means they have to lure him in somehow.  Calesian knows just the way–and here comes the one scene people most remember in the book.

A meet is arranged over the phone–Parker makes very sure the emissary wasn’t being tailed.  Ted Shevelly, Lozini’s loyal consigliere (he was never even approached about the coup), who doesn’t know what’s really going on here, is delegated to bring Parker a token of their regard.   One of Grofield’s little fingers in a little white box.   To prove he’s still alive.  They’ll keep sending more fingers, and other things, until Parker agrees to come in and talk.   Then he’ll get his money, and Grofield, and an ambulance to take him away in.

Parker knows there’d be no talking if he took that deal.   But that isn’t the point anymore.  The button has been pushed.  The button nobody in this world can ever un-push.  The money has now assumed a secondary importance to him.   Or maybe it’s been inextricably mingled together in his mind with something else.  Something much older.

And you can imagine that very ancient fire kindling behind his unreadable onyx eyes, his facial expression not altering in the slightest as that thing inside of him is irreversibly triggered, as we have seen happen many times before, but somehow never quite like this.   If they had made that movie they planned, can you think of any actor who could have expressed that subtle yet unmistakable transition?  Lee Marvin, maybe.  Not an option in 1996.

He knows immediately that this isn’t Buenadella’s idea–that Calesian is in charge.  He tells Shevelly that.  Shevelly doesn’t understand.  Shevelly is being very obtuse.  Fatally so.

“It was a stupid thing to kill Al Lozini,” Shevelly said.

Parker frowned at him, looking at the coldly angry face.  “Oh.  They told you I did that, huh?”

Shevelly had nothing to say.  Parker, studying him, saw there was no point arguing with him, and no longer possible to make use of him.  He gestured with the pistol toward Shevelly, saying, “Get out of the car.”


“Just get out.  Leave the door open, back away to the sidewalk, keep facing me.”

Shevelly frowned.  “What for?”

“I take precautions.  Do it.”

Puzzled Shevelly opened the door and climbed out onto the thin grass next to the curb.  He took a step to the sidewalk and turned around to face the car again.

Parker leaned far to the right, aiming the pistol out at arm’s length in front of him, the line of the barrel sighted on Shevelly’s head.  Shevelly read his intention and suddenly thrust his hands out protectively in front of himself shouting “I’m only the messenger!”

“Now you’re the message,” Parker told him, and shot him.

Parker spends the next few hours seeking a base of operations–he chooses Calesian’s neighborhood.  He’d already looked Calesian up in the phone book, broke into his apartment, found Lozini’s body.  He’s not interested in any of that now, he’s just aware of the fact that it’s the kind of impersonal upscale neighborhood where strangers will not be noticed.  He picks a large apartment building, uses skeleton keys (Abadandi’s?) to check the apartments that don’t have any mail downstairs.  He finds one belonging to a couple who just left on vacation.  He moves his and Grofield’s things there.  He makes some calls.  Some guys take longer than others to find, but he’s very persistent.  When he’s finished, eleven of the men he talked to are on their way to Tyler.

Now re-reading this, I was moved to wonder–does he have a little black book of fellow heisters, or their contacts, that he carries around with him?  That seems like a potentially dangerous piece of evidence to carry around.   Which would mean he’s got all those numbers committed to memory.   For just such situations as this.  In The Outfit, he used the mail–he sent letters to various heisters he knew, telling them these organization men had violated some unwritten law about leaving their kind alone, and as a result they should feel free to ignore the unwritten law that they don’t hit Outfit businesses, no matter how invitingly soft they look.  And surprisingly enough, it worked–they didn’t do it as a favor to him, but they did it, and it helped bring down Arthur Bronson.

There’s no time for that now.  And he’s not just out to bring down Buenadella, Calesian, or whoever else happens to be in charge.  This is not the same situation–they just owed him money then.  Now they owe him blood.  The entire organization is responsible for sending him that finger.   The entire organization has to pay.   Yes, it is rather reminiscent of Anarchaos, isn’t it?   But Parker is no neophyte, like Rolf Malone.  And Grofield isn’t his brother, not that we can be sure a mere genetic relationship would matter to him.  No matter how Parker may or may not feel about his fallen colleague, Grofield’s plight, in and of itself, wouldn’t be enough to make Parker act this way.  But the finger was.  Why?

Leaving that question to one side for the moment, we now move through a series of chapters from the perspective of some characters from past books we haven’t seen in some time, and at least two we never thought we’d see again.   As the moon continues to wane over Tyler, eleven of Parker’s fellow ‘wolves’ (and one lovely little bitch named Brenda, and I only mean that as a compliment) descend upon Tyler, which as we were informed early in the book, never did build a wall around itself, to serve as protection from rapacious bands of brigands, and other beasts of the night.  Such things are in the distant past.  Not anything a modern American city needs worry about.

The 1927-28 New York Yankees line-up was famously known as ‘Murderer’s Row’, but they got nothing on this all star line-up.  Stan Devers and Philly Webb, from the Air Force base job in Monequois.  Dan Wycza, Frank Elkins, and Ralph Wiss, from the legendary Copper Canyon heist.   Mike Carlow, the ultimate getaway driver, sprung from jail after getting nabbed for his role in the Indianapolis coin convention score–as a neat bonus, we find out that Otto Mainzer, the loud-mouth Nazi rapist they worked with on that one had, with his usual fine-tuned grasp of the social graces, made himself so generally noxious to the law that they were practically begging Carlow to accept a deal in exchange for turning state’s.  No prisoner’s dilemma here, since the two loathed each other at first sight, and nobody wanted to give Mainzer a break.

But wait, there’s more!  Ed and Brenda Mackey who we met in Plunder Squad, are driving there, everyone’s favorite fun crime couple, exchanging saucy single-entendres, and not in any way discussing the fact that last time we saw Ed, he was supposed to be lying dead in a burning warehouse, after Parker left him there.  I’m sure that will be explained very shortly.

Just to remind us how this atypically long Parker novel got started, Ducasse, Dalesia, and the other Hurley (the one Parker and Grofield did not shoot full of holes for ratting on them) are coming as well.  Last and the precise opposite of least, there’s Handy McKay, the first and finest of Parker’s partners in crime, out of retirement at last, courtesy of Uncle Sam’s infrastructure upgrades that have made his little diner in Maine unprofitable.  With a few pertinent questions to ask of his old comrade.

Murderer’s Row, indeed.   Parker’s getting the band back together, except most of these guys don’t even know each other, except through him.   You realize what a deep bench of irreformable hard cases he’s compiled in his head over the years.   This is the dream team he always aspired to create, but somehow there was always a bad apple, a weak link.   Not this time.  And just as in Copper Canyon, there’s twelve of them (Grofield makes thirteen), and just as in The Score, you wonder if you’re supposed to be drawing some blasphemous inference or other.

Parker isn’t just calling in the reserves–he’s drawing up battle plans.   To that end, he hijacks poor Frankie Faran, who manages that club Parker and Grofield hit a few nights back.  Frankie is no great shakes in the Tyler mob, but due to his position–you might say he’s their social director–he’s had many an informal chat over drinks with all the major players, and he knows everything Parker needs to know about all the rackets in town.  Which Parker needs to know because Murderer’s Row doesn’t work for nothing.  Frankie is terrified of what his friends would do to him if they found out he’d spilled the beans to Parker, but we’ve seen this dance before, and in no time at all, he’s much more terrified of what Parker will do to him if he doesn’t.

In the meantime, the moon over Tyler has shrunk to a mere silver sliver–tomorrow night it’ll be pitch black out, or would be if some joker turned out the lights.  In that bit of remaining moonlight, we see Grofield, lying in a bed in Buenadella’s house, hooked up to tubes, breathing shallowly, his hands making the occasional spasmodic movement (Should I mention that this chilling tableau reminds me of the stroke scene in Ex Officio?  Probably not).   His heart stops.  Then starts up again.  Hang in there, buddy.   You’ve got Vishnu in your corner, and Shiva has bigger fish to fry.

That gets us about 212 pages in, and that’ll do for Part 2.  Just ninety-four pages to go.  And if you can point out a more perfectly paralyzing pulse-pounding ninety-four pages anywhere else in the annals of fictive crime, I’d be only too grateful.  But perhaps a mite skeptical.

So I just have to cough up Part 3 and we’re done.  In our dimension (in the Northern Hemisphere), the next Butcher’s Moon will occur this coming Sunday, September 13th.  I’m making no promises here, but I’ll see what I can do.

(Part of Friday’s Forgotten Books)


Filed under Butcher's Moon, Donald Westlake novels, Richard Stark

Review: Lemons Never Lie


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, let her grow a few inches taller, 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.


(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.





Filed under Donald Westlake novels

Mr. Grofield and the Artists


I just wanted to do an overview of the cover art for the first three Grofield novels published by MacMillan (and others). Because they’re so good? I wish. Grofield had terrible luck with cover art. It seems like they just didn’t know how to visually depict novels about an actor who supports himself through armed robbery, but isn’t working as an actor or a robber in the first three books he’s the protagonist of. In all fairness, I’m not sure I’d know how to depict that either, even if I could draw worth a damn.

The first Macmillan cover, seen above, is a head-scratcher–yes, the book is set in Mexico, and they play guitars there (and everywhere else on earth). And there’s a woman in it, and she does wear a bikini. Grofield is always interested in sex, so pretty women are pretty nearly always on these covers, but as we’ll see, there’s rarely anything terribly specific about the art–you could stick it on a thousand other mystery/suspense books, and it would work just as well–or poorly.


First American paperback reprint–not bad. This was the first Grofield I ever collected, because I liked the artwork. Grofield looks a bit more somber and square-jawed than I’d imagine him, and you kind of have the feeling that something tragic is going to occur–the redheaded girl dies maybe, and he’s haunted forever by his failure to save her.  Would you know from this cover that the book is a lighthearted romp, nobody important dies, and the girl is a blonde? Nope. Next slide, please.


Now somebody obviously took some trouble to draw this, and I don’t like to complain, but why didn’t he/she take the trouble to read the book, or at least skim it?  It may not be the artist’s fault–Grofield may have sometimes gotten leftover artwork originally intended for other books.  As one would hope was the case below–


Okay, seriously–Elly Fitzgerald is described as a blonde over and over in this book!  There are no other female characters of any consequence.   Why is her hair a jumble of black wires, and why does Grofield look like he’d rather be doing his taxes than making out with her?  Does anybody here know how to play this game?  Let’s try the European continent–they appreciate a nice blonde over there–

damsel_portugal_1 damsel_germany_1  damsel_sweden_1 damsel_italy_1

I just do not get it.  And this is nice cover art (lovely graphics on the first one, from Portugal), and some of it really seems geared towards the book–the last cover, from Italy, in particular.  And yet over and over–brunettes.   And there are no brunettes in The Damsel.  A mystery that shall remain forever unsolved.  As will the mystery of how, if that’s Grofield on the cover of the Swedish edition (with a brunette, obviously) looking like a black-haired cross between Michael Madsen and Rutger Hauer, anybody would ever want to work with him.  I think Parker would find him too creepy.  On to The Dame.


American and British first editions, and basically the British artist took his cues from the American cover, without slavishly imitating it.   It says a lot for the Grofield covers that these are two of the better ones, but they still don’t tell you a damn thing about the story or characters, and could easily be repurposed to many other unrelated books.


The continental European publishers usually did the best job with the Grofield artwork, but of course the artists would often not read English, and might not have been given a translation to read either (this is assuming book cover artists working in the crime genre always carefully studied the books they were illustrating, and I make no such assumption).  So here we have really nice looking artwork, a pleasure to the eye, that seems to have been drawn for entirely different books.

The German cover in particular is great, but I think the artist just knew that the book was set in Puerto Rico and had guns in it, so here’s a guy shot dead in the jungle–must be in there somewhere, yah? Explains the other one as well–there must be a sexy girl, and since the book is set in Puerto Rican, she’d be Latina, so of course brunette and curvy–now I think on it, this is probably what happened with The Damsel covers making Elly a brunette–the artist just knows where the action of the book takes place, and gears the artwork to that. And this is what comes of artists not reading the books.


I really can’t decide which of these is worse.

Let’s try The Blackbird–this is the era of blaxploitation movies, so obviously we’re going to see a tough-looking black chick with a gun–


And here’s the same odd parallel between the completely different illustrations on the American and British first editions–scary black woman holding automatic rifle.  Both have full afros, even though Vivian Kamdela is described as having very close-cut hair.  And as being extremely beautiful, and if you want to know how I’m seeing her at present–


(Lupita Nyong’o looked absolutely sensational at the Oscars on Sunday.  Not that there’s ever going to be a movie version of The Blackbird, but it’s nice to have her to mentally replace those scowling afro’d women with, isn’t it?)


Countryman Publishing reprinted all the Grofields, often in more than one edition, and I’m sure Westlake was happy to have the royalty money, but their covers were invariably the worst.  The one on the left is depressingly literal, isn’t it?  A highly schematic black woman, and there’s the silhouette of a bird (black of course), as done by a five year old who flunked art class.   And I really don’t know what the other one is supposed to be–some kind of ice gremlin?  If they couldn’t afford good artwork, why did they keep commissioning new covers for the same book?  I really wish this publisher had just decided to emulate Gallimard’s Serie Noire imprint here–


I know they’re just being cheap, but dammit, that WORKS.


Okay, neither of these women look at all like the woman in the book, and do I care?  Not when they look this good, I don’t.  Of course, the German edition on the right is using a live model, and somehow one would like to know her name–was she in any movies I could rent?   I’m not going to mention all the various title translations, but this one I find rather amusing as a birder who has been to Germany–in Europe, blackbirds are grouped with the thrush family.   The German word for blackbird is Amsel.   But for whatever reason, they decided to give the German language edition the title Die Singdrossel, which means The Song Thrush–which is an entirely different species of thrush.  That is not black.  Your guess is as good as mine.

The edition on the left is Swedish–obviously.  Because of the nudity–and the (obviously male) artist’s touching assumption that all sexy women, regardless of skin color, have tan lines.  Not that I have any particular problem with tan lines.  Again, there is no attempt being made to illustrate anything specific from the plot–but wait–Italy has yet to be heard from!


Does this look like a beautiful dark-skinned black woman with short nappy hair?   No.  Does her wearing some kind of poncho in the snow (I guess it could be a blanket) make any sense?  No.  Does this illustrate a scene from the book?  Kind of yeah–where Grofield and Vivian are being buzzed by the plane.   They’re in a snowmobile, and they aren’t using pistols, but I think this one merits an ‘E’ for effort.   If only because Vivian isn’t buck naked in northern Canada in the wintertime.  Not that there’s anything wrong with that.

And the award for the most generic Grofield cover of all time (and quite possibly the most generic book cover of all time) goes to–


It’s almost masterful in its way.   Try to imagine any novel, short story collection, play, sex manual, that this could not serve as the cover for.   Probably wouldn’t work for a cookbook, but you could just draw a chef’s hat onto one of them.

The most recent reprints were from University of Chicago, and they aren’t too bad.  Or too good.  Or too easily distinguished from each other if you happen to be colorblind and don’t have your reading glasses on.


The Grofield covers are, with few exceptions, a vast assortment of sour lemons, but ironically enough, the very last book, which references sour lemons in the title, and was from a different publisher, didn’t do too badly in that department.   But I’ll save those for the review, still some time off.

Our next book has had an even greater variety of covers, and frankly most of them aren’t so hot either.   And it doesn’t matter a damn.  Because the rock is hot, and the people seeking it are so damn cool.  And funny as all hell.

(If you enjoyed looking at these highly inappropriate book covers, as I know I did, you can find all of them, and many more besides, at the Official Westlake Blog–this link will direct you to the Richard Stark wing of the cover gallery.)


Filed under Donald Westlake novels

Review: The Blackbird


He got out of the shower, toweled himself dry, and walked nude into the room, stopping short in the doorway.  Seated on the chair across the room was a coal black Negro girl in a green pants suit, looking like Robin Hood got up for a Commando raid.  She looked Grofield up and down and said, as though to herself, “They are smaller.”

“I don’t believe it,” Grofield said.

“Take my word for it,” she said.

“I don’t believe God could be so cruel,” Grofield said.  “All I want to do is sleep.  I don’t want anything complicated now.”

“Nothing complicated,” the girl said briskly.  Behind her camouflage, she was a stunning girl, with large flashing eyes and close-cropped hair in the natural style, very wooly.  She spoke with a vaguely British accent.  She said, “All you have to do is tell me who sent you here and why.  Then I’ll go away and you can sleep.”

“My doctor,” Grofield said.  “For the waters.”


“My doctor sent me here.  For the waters.”

“What waters?”  She sounded more annoyed than confused.

“I was misinformed,” Grofield said.  “Humphrey Bogart and Claude Rains, Casablanca, 1942.  I hope you have an exit line, because you’re exiting.”  He walked toward the bed.

So here we are at the third Grofield novel, published by Macmillan in 1969, which begins with the same fouled-up armored car heist as a Parker novel named Slayground, published by Random House in 1971, even though the next Parker novel Deadly Edge (also dated 1971) clearly takes place before the events of the earlier Grofield novel. And just to make things even more convoluted, Slayground has two copyright dates–1969 and 1971. Confused yet? You will be.

You will read in many souces that The Blackbird has the same opening chapter as Slayground–not quite exactly the case. We see the same sequence of events that Slayground begins with, true enough, but in this book we see them from Grofield’s POV.

In the latter book, Stark sticks with Parker, showing us the action from his perspective–the paragraphs that don’t describe what one of them is doing or seeing are identical (which is evidently the reason for Slayground having two different copyright years). In Slayground, the chapter ends with Parker running into an amusement park with a satchel of money. In The Blackbird, Grofield (appropriately enough) blacks out, subsequent to the getaway car crashing.

Probably by the time Grofield woke up in a nearby hospital, Parker’s very bad day at the fair had already concluded and he was back at a house in Northern New Jersey we’ll be learning about in another book. So that’s where the experiment in parallel plotting ends, but I’m curious–has anybody else ever done this? Start two completely different books from two completely different publishers with two completely different protagonists with the same opening chapter, from two different vantage points?

And did Westlake write these books at around the same time, as Sarah Weinman says in her introduction to the Grofield novels for the University of Chicago reprints? She says it was about publishing schedules–that’s quite plausible, and she may have had inside information to that effect (not entirely clear). After Gold Medal decided to stop publishing the Parker novels as first edition paperbacks, it took a while for Westlake to work out a deal with Random House to publish them in hardcover. He might have had two or three written by that time. For a while there, Grofield was the only Stark character with a job.

However, given that Slayground clearly takes place after the events of Deadly Edge (in the last chapter, Parker goes back to the house in New Jersey), I’m wondering if Westlake wrote The Blackbird before either of them, and decided to give Grofield a sales boost, by having Parker make what was then his only cameo appearance in another character’s book (up until a certain Joe Gores novel in ’72).

Did he get curious later as to what happened to Parker after Grofield blacked out, and decide to write that story? Or did he write The Blackbird and Slayground together, and then decide to fill in the gap of how Parker and Claire came to live in New Jersey with Deadly Edge, before publishing Slayground, and add in the reference to New Jersey in Slayground? See, I told you you’d be confused. Join the club. Anybody knows for sure, pipe up by all means.

So. Grofield wakes up in the hospital, with police guards, and he figures he’s screwed. He is, but not the way he thinks. There are Feds there who want to talk to him. Not FBI. Not CIA. Not Treasury. Some other branch in the great spreading tree that is U.S. Defense/Intelligence/Law Enforcement/Etc.

They do not seem to know Grofield already worked for the government (after a fashion) around a year back (see The Handle), along with Parker, and that it didn’t work out so well for the government (though Grofield was the one who got shot multiple times).

They seem to know everything about Grofield–like for example, that he’s on good terms with with both General Pozos of Guerrero and Unum Marba of Undurwa, who we met in the two previous books–so you’d think they’d know about the Cockaigne job as well, but you can rationalize it as typically poor communication between different agencies. It’s not really that implausible. That’s how 9/11 happened, right? Oh of course, that was a vast government conspiracy. No plane ever hit the Pentagon. Osama bin Laden was a patsy, or a plant. Because vast sprawling government bureaucracies are just that well-organized. I’m rolling my eyes now.

Grofield has a choice, and you will note it’s not entirely dissimilar to the choice made by J. Eugene Raxford in The Spy in the Ointment, published about three years earlier. Eugene’s choice is A)Go undercover with terrorists who think he’s one of them or B)Wait for the terrorists to figure out he’s not one of them and kill him.

Grofield’s choice is simpler–A)Go undercover at a gathering of third world leaders in Canada (including Pozos and Marba) who may find out he’s a U.S. agent and kill him or B)Go to jail, do not pass go, and collect Social Security much later, if ever. He’s not happy with this choice. Nobody would be happy with this choice. But these are his options.

He accepts the deal offered with the tacit understanding by all concerned that he’s going to try to run out on them the moment he gets the chance. He tries really hard–and Grofield has already demonstrated his talent at shaking a tail in The Handle. Makes a run at the airport. No dice–they bugged his clothes. He can’t shake them the way he did the agents in The Handle. He wonders out loud to an agent name of Murray if they’ve even implanted some kind of tracking device inside his body–this is a rather prescient little passage in its way–

“My God!” Grofield said. He felt physically weak. “What a thing even to think about!”

Murray looked thoughtful. “But you know,” he said slowly, “that isn’t such a bad idea. You take your known Commie, say, your incorrigible criminal, like you, for instance, you take whoever it might be you’re interested in, you put the little transmitter in them, then any time you wanted to know what they were up to you’d just triangulate on them, see where they were, go on over and check them out.”

“That’s the most evil thing I ever heard in my life,” Grofield said.

“Why?” Murray seemed honestly puzzled. “We wouldn’t use it on good people,” he said. “Just bad people.” He smiled broadly, delighted with himself. “You know what I’m going to do? I’m going to put that in the suggestion box back in the office.”

Grofield looked at him. “I keep having the strong feeling,” he said, “that for the sake of generations unborn I ought to strangle you here and now.”

Murray chuckled, not taking him seriously. “Oh you,” he said. You’ve just got a vested interest, that’s all. Being a thief and everything.”

Relax, Grofield. It’s been over 40 years, and they still aren’t there yet. Just stay off the internet, and watch out for tiny helicopters–oh never mind, you’d be retired by then. Or dead.

They don’t need tracking devices–they know about his acting career. There’s no way he can elude them indefinitely. He gets them the intel they’re after–the purpose of the gathering of tinpot dictators in Quebec City–or the next time he sees his lovely wife Mary will be on visiting day.

And somehow, superhumanly faithful and patient though she is, it’s hard to imagine Mary waiting 25 years to life. I mean, fair is fair–the last time Grofield went away for a job, he bedded three fetching blondes over the course of maybe two months, and one of them showed up on Mary’s doorstep with his money from the job–wearing support stockings. Like that makes it any better. And he’s going to cheat on her yet again, but not with a blonde this time. He’s an equal opportunity philanderer.

In the scene I opened this review with, he meets Vivian Kamdela, who is from Undurwa, the same country as Onum Marba, and that’s no coincidence–she works for him, and has been assigned to find out why Grofield is there. Strong-willed, educated, and rather contemptuous of Grofield’s every-man-for-himself attitude. Throughout the book, they’re having a back and forth philosophical dialogue strongly resembling that between Oliver Abbott and Leona Roof in Up Your Banners, only these two are not falling in love at any point in time. Vivian is very patriotic and loyal to her country, and believes in being a good soldier. Grofield only believes in being Grofield.

There’s clearly an attraction (of course there is, it’s a Grofield novel), but her reaction to him is even more hostile than that of the female leads in the two previous books–in all three cases, he’s faced with a strong-willed female he’d happily bed given the opportunity, who wants to use him for some agenda that puts his life in danger–difference here is that Vivian’s agenda isn’t personal, but political.

They go for a romantic carriage ride through historic Quebec City, during which Grofield finally meets Mr. Marba again, who respects Grofield’s abilities–which he observed up-close in the previous book–but naturally distrusts him, since he can even use truth as a weapon. Grofield, acting very much against orders, tells Marba who he’s working for, and what he’s supposed to learn. He just wants to find some way out of this mess, and figures Marba might help him. The ride back with Vivian is much less friendly than the ride there.

She faced him again, still frozen-eyed. “If you must know,” she said, “on the way up I thought you were a patriot. I thought you were working for your country out of conviction. A patriot might be my enemy, if his country was my country’s enemy, but at least I would be able to respect him. But you aren’t a patriot, you were forced to be here and you don’t care at all that you are betraying your country. You don’t care for anything but yourself, you don’t understand the existence of anything larger than yourself. I despise you, Mr. Grofield, and I do not want to talk to you any more. And I don’t want you to talk to me.”

“Some day, Miss Kamdela,” Grofield said, “we’ll have a nice long talk about patriotism vs. the draft. In the meantime, I’m going to take care of my own skin whether you approve of me or not.”

It is often hard for me to understand how political conservatives have ever considered Donald Westlake (under any name) to be one of them (as many clearly do). Not that us liberals should ever have regarded him as a reliable ally, either. We’ve already seen him devastate the Anarchist/Libertarian argument in Anarchaos, and he made his feelings clear about aspiring left-wing revolutionaries in Up Your Banners, and quite a few other books. “A plague on all your houses” would probably sum his attitude up fairly well. So good luck trying to stick a label on him.

Grofield is briefly abducted and drugged by some faction, seemingly linked to an extremist French Canadian separatist movement, but their agenda is unclear–they want to know what he knows, and he doesn’t really know anything yet–he didn’t even know there was such a thing as French-Canadian separatist movements. I have to say, he’s much less knowledgeable about politics here than he was in The Damsel–one suspects Westlake decided it just wasn’t believable for somebody as indifferent to politics as Grofield to know much of anything about it. His bugged clothing saves him, bringing in his handlers to the rescue.

But then he gets grabbed again, this time by Marba’s group, who have decided to neutralize him–confiding in Marba was maybe not such a great idea. He’s taken on a plane ride into the frozen wastes of Northern Canada (sorry Canuck readers, but you know better than me what it’s like up there–I can barely make it through a New York City winter these days), given new unbugged clothes, and they finally set down at a remote lodge by a frozen lake, that is only accessible by air, or snowmobile.

Grofield is exactly where the people who recruited him wanted him to be, but not at all in the way they (or he) wanted–he’s got no way to report back, and to make sure he doesn’t learn anything useful to American intelligence, he’s locked in a bleak isolated room with nothing to do but wait for the gathering of third world governments to end.

Grofield can’t stand confinement any more than Parker could, but his reaction to it is different than Parker’s would be–he breaks down the door, and goes to complain about his treatment–taken to see Undurwa’s head of state (who has been told by the irritated Miss Kamdela that this Grofield is not to be trusted), he fails to understand the mentality of a dictator–so alien to a free spirit like himself–and totally blows the interview. He talks to the man as if they were equals. Oh dear.

The military dictator, Colonel Rahgos, says Grofield has unfortunately given him no choice but to order him killed. Nothing personal, of course (it’s a bit personal; military dictators dislike free spirits on general principle). Grofield in this instance does respond the way Parker would–by jumping through a nearby window, after grabbing the Colonel’s overcoat. Which isn’t going to be nearly enough. It’s winter. In Northern Canada. If he can’t find shelter, and better clothing, and fast, they won’t need to kill him.

What follows is Grofield adapting to the situation, as he always does, improvising his way into a nearby structure guarded by only two armed men–normally not such a problem for him, except he’s in the process of freezing to death. But through a combination of ingenuity and dumb luck, he figures out a way to ride up on an electrically operated door, and conceal himself on the ceiling–then at an opportune moment, incapacitates the guards, obtaining boots, a heavy mackinaw, and an automatic rifle. There are supplies in the building, and snowmobiles. He appropriates both, and makes his escape.

Only not quite. He had to wait until dawn to see where he was going, and in the distance, he sees that something very bad is happening at the compound–it seems to be under attack. Not from his government, but (as it turns out) the people who had grabbed him earlier. Lots of shooting and burning going on. He sees no reason to involved himself in it–but then he meets Vivian–who assumes he’s behind it, naturally. But he convinces her otherwise, and the fact that he’s her only chance of surviving has a rather thawing effect on her frosty demeanor. They evade an airplane piloted by some of the attackers, and by this time she’s fully on Team Grofield.

She tells him what’s been going on–four African American soldiers managed to steal a really nasty biological weapon from a military storehouse. They’ve hidden it somewhere in the surrounding area, and are auctioning it off to the highest third world bidders. There’s enough of it to kill everybody on the planet forty times over (Uncle Sam being nothing if not thorough), so there’s plenty to go around–and as Vivian explains, even if they never wanted to use it, the threat of a neighbor having it would be enough to make them want to have some too, just as a counter-balance.

Now Grofield is not the altruistic sort. That’s been very well established. It takes a whole hell of a lot to motivate him to do anything at all for anyone other than himself. What he wants to do now is head south, find a phone, and call his handlers–let them handle it. If the sale was going ahead as planned, that’s exactly what he’d do.

But Vivian, being a practical levelheaded sort of girl under all her patriotic zeal, convinces him that this won’t work–clearly what’s happened is that some more dangerous entity than these little impoverished countries intends to get the whole stockpile, and then maybe drop it on major American cities, or blackmail the western governments–when you can kill everybody in the world forty times over, your options are fairly expansive.

Grofield’s options, by contrast, are very limited–if he chooses escape, then these people will get the gas canisters, and make off with them, long before the cavalry arrives. There’s nobody else to stop them. Grofield doesn’t want to be James Freakin’ Bond. But that’s the role he’s been forcibly cast in. And he’s really really pissed about that.

He’ll play the role, because he’s a professional and all, but he won’t enjoy it one bit, and he’s going to take some ethical shortcuts, because he just wants to get back alive, and play the role he’s more comfortable in–taking other people’s money. However, for his actor/heister lifestyle to continue, he does need civilization as we know it to go on functioning. Not much demand for an actor in a post-apocalyptic world, and since everybody would be stealing, his other profession would get much too crowded. So once more into the breach.

Vivian tells him only the four black American soldiers–Grofield’s countrymen–know the location of the gas cannisters. Grofield and Vivian fight their way through the chaotic scene at the compound, get to the soldiers, who are being held prisoner, preparatory to having the information tortured out of them–and what happens then–okay, major spoiler alert–

One of the four said to Grofield, “I don’t know where you came from, man, but you’re beautiful.” All four of them were grinning in relief.

Grofield said, “Did you tell anybody where the canisters are?”

“Are you crazy? That’s what kept us alive.”

“Nobody at all?” Grofield insisted.

“Not even the chaplain,” the spokesman said.

“That’s good,” Grofield said, and pointed the machine gun at them and pulled the trigger.

Here we see that Grofield maybe does pass muster as a Stark protagonist after all. He’s learned a few things from Parker. If it needs doing, do it. These men had betrayed their country (which to be sure, hasn’t exactly done right by them most of the time), and Grofield doesn’t give a damn about that. But they put the lives of everyone on the planet at risk in the process. They were self-evidently going to kill Grofield as soon as they didn’t need him. And even if that wasn’t true, the only way to be sure the people attacking the compound don’t get the gas is to make sure nobody–absolutely nobody–knows where it is. They gots to go.

So why make the soldiers black? It just raises the question of race in a way seemingly unnecessary to the story being told–so clearly Westlake, who was working on a book about American racial turmoil around the same time, wanted to raise that issue–but not deal with it seriously, because it’s not a serious book.

Now, we don’t get to know these men–not even their names–so it’s not as shocking as it might be for Grofield to just whack them. We’ve seen him kill lots of white guys before now, and not waste a moment’s time worrying about it–but still–pretty damn cold. And dealt with by Stark in his usual terse offhanded anti-climactic approach to violence.

The point, I’d guess, is who would be most likely to have such a low opinion of society as to not give a damn what happens to it? Obviously the people society treats the worst. Not most of them–but it only takes a few. And, as Westlake said in Up Your Banners, nobody condescends up–if you keep treating people with kid gloves because you’re sorry for the way they’ve been treated, or guilty about it, you’re not really treating them as equals. Rather the opposite. People deserve to be judged by the content of their character–those who sell weapons of mass destruction to the highest bidder can’t really be said to have any character at all.

He’s had mainly sympathetic black characters in his books up to now–Grofield himself makes a metatextual comment to Vivian about how black guys are never the villains in this kind of story (not really true–see Live and Let Die, clearly an influence on this book). Time for a little balance. Black men can be just as despicable as white men, if they set their minds to it.

While it’s a bit hard to buy that four black soldiers could steal such a deadly weapon without the government noticing, we Americans do tend to misplace our toys rather a lot, don’t we? So allowing for that level of bureaucratic incompetence, as Westlake invariably does, what’s the simplest answer to Grofield’s dilemma?

Vivian can’t believe he chose that answer, and once they’ve gotten clear of the bad guys (well, the worse guys), she really lights into him–accuses him of killing the men just because they’re black. But she’s forced to concede eventually that it was the only way–to stop the weapons from getting into the worst possible hands–and for the two of them to survive.

And having forgiven Grofield, seen that there is some merit to his worldview, even if she can’t entirely share it, and of course being impressed by his capabilities–well, this is the third Grofield novel to end with him bedding the hostile broad. I’m a guy, so I’m not complaining, but it is getting a mite repetitive. By the bye, he explains to her in mid-coitus that while white men seem to have smaller procreative members than black men on average, it’s actually only true when they’re in the flaccid state (hey, don’t ask me). She finds this very sexy, for some reason. It’s good to be the hero–as long as you survive.

Overall, I think this is the best of the three Grofields published by Macmillan–Westlake has gotten much closer to figuring out how to write like Stark without writing about Parker. I think actually that’s one of the reasons he put Grofield in that situation with the four soldiers–to prove that Grofield could be just as cold and capable. But somehow, he’s not nearly as convincing, or compelling. He’s still too much of a Mary Sue, if you know what I mean (if not, click the link).

I’d take any of the Parkers over this book. Of course, Parker wouldn’t have let himself get involved in this kind of story to begin with–as I said in an earlier review, Parker forces the narrative to bow to his agenda–Grofield, however grudgingly, will ultimately agree to be whatever the story calls on him to be–even a hero who saves the world from dastardly villains seeking doomsday devices. He’ll do it in his own unique style, with a lot fewer pretensions than Philip Marlowe or James Bond, but he’ll do it. An actor learns to make do with the roles he’s offered. The show must go on.

Grofield is an interesting experiment, and by no means a completely failed one. Stark will give him one last chance to be the protagonist, working on familiar Stark territory at long last, and we finally get to see Mary again (and she shows us why Grofield always goes back to her, however far he strays). The Blackbird won’t be the best Grofield novel for very long. But ultimately, Westlake had to acknowledge that enough was enough–he’d taken this character as far as he could go. There wasn’t enough there there, to paraphrase Gertrude Stein.

What distinguishes Grofield most from Parker is the sense of humor–there’s humor in the Parker novels, sure, but it’s very subdued, played so close to the vest as to be nearly indistinguishible–you don’t laugh reading them. Grofield is always joking, never taking anything seriously, least of all himself–it’s endearing in its way, but the thing is, he’s so determined to find the humor in every situation, so convinced of how funny he is, that you don’t really laugh reading about his adventures either. He’s trying too hard.

Suppose there was a Westlake protagonist who aspired to be like Parker–who wanted to be cold and capable and competent–and who really is, in so many ways–but life keeps conspiring to make him look ridiculous, and there’s nothing he can do about it? Comedy always works best when the protagonist doesn’t want to see the joke–nothing funnier than wounded dignity. Than things not working out as planned. Buster Keaton never laughed at anything, and that’s why everybody laughed at him. Parker doesn’t want to make us laugh–refuses to participate in comic ventures–Grofield, for all his wit, can’t make us do much more than chortle–the Westlake Nephews are diverting, amusing, but the bellylaughs somehow just aren’t there.

Donald E. Westlake, having had his biggest success with a comic crime novel, has been trying for half a decade now to be funny–really funny. But he hasn’t had the right foil. He’s going to find him now. And perhaps you see him in your mind’s eye, walking out of prison with a perpetual hangdog air, like a malnourished coyote, and now a car bears down upon him–and is that a girly scream emitting from his mouth? What the heck?

The Blackbird was the last Donald Westlake novel to bear a 1960’s publication date (and they can be somewhat misleading, but never mind that now). The 70’s are here, and they’re going to be something quite quite extraordinary in this particular writer’s career. Westlake the comedian has fully emerged from his chrysalis. And the crime novel will never be the same again.

(But first, I’m going to do one more thing about Grofield–patience, readers. Dortmunder is coming–save me a seat at the OC Bar & Grill–I’ll have a bourbon–something cheap–but oh so sustaining).


Filed under Donald Westlake novels, Interracial Romance

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

Review: The Damsel


“What on earth,” she said, “are you talking about?”

“Acting,” he said.   “Do you realize that in my peak year so far I earned a miserable thirty-seven hundred dollars from acting?”

“What about this money here?” she demanded, pointing at the suitcase.

“Sixty-three thousand dollars.  A bunch of us knocked over that gambling casino, and that’s my share.”

“Gambling casino,” she said contemptuously.  “Off the coast of Texas.  So how do you wind up here?”

“It’s a long story,” he said.

“By the time you’re done making it up,” she said, “I suppose it will be.  The last story you were Casanova, this time you’re Robin Hood.  Who are you going to be next time, Flash Gordon?”

Since 1962, under the name of Richard Stark, Donald Westlake had been writing a lot of short violent tersely-worded novels about an armed robber named Parker, which were published by Pocket Books, and which had twice so far featured Alan Grofield as one of Parker’s more trusted accomplices.

Parker’s first sidekick, if you want to use that term, had been Handy McKay, who many (myself included) consider the best of the bunch, but the trouble with Handy was that he didn’t have any kind of backstory, or really anything to distinguish him from Parker, other than the fact that he was a bit nicer and he never seemed to be dating anybody.   Personally, I’d love to know what a Handy McKay novel would have looked like, but no question–to make that work, you’d have to substantially add to the character.   As he exists, he would not make sense as a solo player, any more than Dr. John Watson would (and yes, I know, but pastiches don’t count).

And yet the question remains–does Grofield make sense as a solo player?   After his introduction in The Score, where he met his future wife Mary Deegan, and then his return in The Handle, where Parker left him in a Mexican hotel to recuperate from his wounds, he got the chance to prove he could cut it on his own.  But because of some transitions going on in Westlake/Stark’s professional life, his ride was bumpy from the start.

The original idea, we can be pretty sure, was that Grofield would be published under the same roof as Parker, which would have made cross-marketing a lot easier–that’s why the end of The Handle leads into the beginning of The Damsel.  But around the time Westlake started developing Grofield as a solo act, Pocket decided to stop publishing original paperback crime novels–The Handle would be the last Parker novel to appear under their aegis.  So Grofield was left in that Mexican hotel for quite some time, while Westlake scrambled to find a venue for his work as Richard Stark.

Gold Medal, long the reigning monarch of the now-dying original paperback crime novel market, agreed to take Parker, an established character, inspired in no small part by novels they’d published in their heyday of the 1950’s, who had enjoyed strong sales, and was about to appear (in very altered form and name) in a major motion picture starring Lee Marvin.

The relationship between Westlake and Gold Medal was brief, and according to Westlake, never terribly comfortable on either side, but it did lead to some of the best cover art Parker ever got, from the brilliant Robert McGinnis. Parker fit right in at Gold Medal, even if Westlake felt like the odd man out in an area of publishing whose days were clearly numbered.   Gold Medal knew how to sell this kind of story.   Gold Medal very nearly invented this kind of story, or at least popularized it.

But Gold Medal wasn’t that interested in Grofield, unproven as a protagonist–and the first novel was already written, making it hard to retool to Gold Medal’s tastes–so Westlake found Grofield a home of sorts at Macmillan’s Cock Robin Mystery division, which published The Damsel in 1967.  The American paperback reprint rights went to New American Library’s Signet label, and that edition appeared in 1969–by which point in time, Parker was at Random House, and Grofield was looking for a new publisher again.

Yes, it’s very confusing, but if you want to read more about it, check out The Getaway Car, which happens to be available right now, in both electronic and paperback form.  The single most invaluable resource any aspiring Westlake scholar ever laid his or her sweaty palms upon.   Which I’ll be reviewing very shortly.

Now to the extent there was an existing market for Grofield, it existed because of Parker.   And Parker was written by Richard Stark.  So naturally the Grofield novels would be published under that pseudonym as well.  But in rereading The Damsel, I was moved to ponder–is this a Richard Stark novel, simply because Stark’s name is on it?  Remember, Westlake refused for many years to write any Stark novels at all because he felt he couldn’t get the voice right anymore.   Did he think he got the voice right here, or did he simply decide he needed the extra revenue badly enough to compromise a little?   After all, he’d created Grofield as Stark, so Stark surely deserved the credit for anything Westlake did with the character.  I can actually imagine him rationalizing it that way, God help me.

To be sure, the book is written in the third person, like every other Stark novel ever published.  All of Westlake’s novels published under his own name to this point, other than The Busy Body, had featured first-person narrators (which proved to be a less durable tradition).   I personally don’t see much difference in the writing style of The Busy Body and The Damsel–appositely, I saw significant differences between The Busy Body and The Jugger, written around the same time.   But of course, The Busy Body and The Damsel are both rather light-hearted humorous works of fiction–actually, I’d say the former was more humorous, and the latter more light-hearted.   The Jugger is as funny as an obituary page, and as light-hearted as a funeral dirge, though a lot more entertaining than either.

This small exercise in literary forensics I’m engaged with here here is further complicated by the fact that, as I’ve said elsewhere, I think Grofield is a Westlake character who for whatever reason got born in a Richard Stark novel (and much later, somehow managed to transmigrate himself, in a sort of alternate dimensional form, into the Dortmunder books).   Their propensity for armed robbery, aversion to personal compromise, devotion to professional standards, and attraction to the same types of women aside, Grofield and Parker don’t have much in common.   Parker is the ultimate monoglot (I am not referring only to language here); Grofield the ultimate dilettante.  As indeed any good actor has to be.

Grofield knows a little something about everything–fencing, guns, horseback riding, history, literature, movies, even politics–all geared to one end–for him to be able to credibly inhabit a wide variety of roles.  One of which happens to be heavy heister–he does that for real, but it’s still a role, and the places he robs are merely stages–all the world’s a stage to Alan Grofield, all the men and women he meets are fellow players.   He bears none of them ill will, but his attachment to most of them is purely transitory in nature–you have to be ready for casting changes. The closest thing he has to a permanent connection in his life is Mary–his partner in the theater, as well as in bed, which is what makes her different from the others–but there are a lot of others.  Grofield is different from Parker in that as well–his sex drive does not shut down when he’s working–quite the contrary.  He’s as much of a dilettante when it comes to women as he is with everything else.

Parker, as we’ve seen, imposes his persona on whatever situation he finds himself in–he may pretend to be something other than himself to evade detection, get the job done, but he’s not playing a role–he’s just blending in–and not very convincingly.  Put him in a James Bond spy story or a whodunnit detective story, he will turn it into a hardboiled crime novel–the narrative will bend to his agenda. Put Grofield in those situations, he bends to the will of the narrative–reluctantly, but professionally.   It’s his nature.  He plays the role he’s cast in, at any given moment–because he has no choice.  The role may not always be to his liking, but that is also part and parcel of his profession.

That, I think, is what happened with him and Mary Deegan–flirting with her at the telephone office in Copper Canyon, while his colleagues were robbing the entire town, he inadvertently fell out of the tense violent heist story he had signed up for, and into a sort of romantic comedy with a heist angle–because that’s what seemed to be called for at the time (and because his new leading lady was delightful). His identity is less settled than Parker’s–more fluid.  This opens up certain opportunities to him, but it also makes him much easier to distract.  He’s like water poured into a variety of containers–constantly changing form–and yet it’s always water.  And he’s always Grofield.   Whoever that is.   Is any actor ever 100% sure?    Any human?

By the way, here’s another contrast between him and Parker–the names.   Parker has chosen one of the most common names in the English-speaking world to hide behind–right up there with Smith and Jones, but less obviously an alias–it’s not even definitively a first or last name.   Grofield, by contrast, is very much a surname, and one of the rarest I’ve ever come across–try doing a google search for it.   Try looking up Grofields in an online directory–you’ll find damned few.   I got the impression there were more country inns going by that moniker than actual people.

I work for a library, have access to remarkable databases, and best as I can tell nobody by that name ever wrote a damned thing in all of history.  Has anyone out there ever known a Grofield?   The name clearly isn’t Westlake’s invention, but I wonder where he came across it?   One tends to assume it must be the fictive Grofield’s actual name–it would be a truly rotten alias.

And he goes around blithely identifying himself to people by that exceedingly rare name, some of whom might later have cause to track him down with ill intent.   True, he’s never been much for fixed abodes, and nobody had online search engines back then.  Still and all, I can only think this tendency of his to use his real name when not actually committing a robbery is because it’s all he’s got to anchor a tenuous constantly shifting sense of self.   And hey, it probably looks great on a theater marquee.   Not like his name is Archie Leach or anything like that. I guess it’s also possible he borrowed the name from somewhere, because it would look good on a marquee–maybe he’s Jewish, like the actor in Pity Him Afterwards.  He just picked an unusual but WASPy-sounding name out of a hat, for professional reasons.  We’ll never know.   But I think it’s his real name.

The reason I have Alan Alda’s picture up top is that from the very first time I started reading about Grofield, I cast Alda in my head to play him, and I’ve been hearing Alda’s voice in my head when I read Grofield’s dialogue ever since. (That particular film still is from John Frankenheimer’s The Extraordinary Seaman, which featured Alda in his first significant feature film role). I’m sure the shared first name had something to do with it, as did the physical description–tall, lean, dark-haired, intense–but mainly it was the sense of humor, the weakness for sarcastic asides, the knack for verbal ju jitsu, ala Groucho Marx, that anybody who watched MASH remembers very well.  And of course the roving eye. Grofield may take some things seriously, but he’ll rarely admit to it.  Language is a game to him, an art form, as well as a tool of his trade, and he uses it to both illumine and obfuscate–in a way Parker could never understand, and responds to mainly with “Shut up, Grofield.”   But Grofield never shuts up for very long.  The one role he could never play would be a mute.

Now there’s another contrast with Parker–I suspect many others who have read the books he’s in have managed to cast him as one actor or another in their imaginations.   But Parker is notoriously hard to cast–reading his dialogue, we who are film buffs may sometimes hear Lee Marvin’s voice, or Robert Duvall’s, or some actor who never played him but should have (pretty sure nobody ever heard Jason Statham), but there’s something elusive about Parker–we all know, down inside, that nobody could ever capture him perfectly, that he will never be 100% right anywhere but in the pages of a Richard Stark novel.

Grofield, we can easily imagine as the hero of a movie or a TV show.  And yet he never has been.  Nobody’s even tried.   Go figure. Grofield himself, we are told repeatedly, could easily make far more money than he ever will as a heister by just abandoning his professional principles, going to Hollywood, doing guest roles on TV, landing a series, maybe even making it as a film star.  He’d be richer and he’d get laid easier and he’d live longer, and he absolutely will not go for it.

To him, real acting means live theater–and the odds of him ever becoming one of the tiny handful who can support themselves solely through that kind of acting are virtually nil.   And he can’t compromise the way most semi-successful theatrical players do either–by waiting tables, moving furniture, teaching acting classes, or whatever.   He’ll steal scenes or he’ll steal money.   Nothing else. So he’s chosen a double life, which means a divided identity, which is dangerous for a Westlake protagonist–and makes him unique among Westlake’s series characters (there was one other, much later on, but he didn’t choose to be in that situation).

Grofield believes that his acting makes him a better heister, and his heisting makes him a better actor.  He may be right, but it also makes him vulnerable, in a way Parker is not.  Parker is all of a piece, 100% in the moment–Grofield, in his work life and his love life alike is more like Shakespeare’s description of men in general–“one foot in sea and one on shore, to one thing constant never.”   Because unlike Parker, a wolf in human form, Grofield is just a man–but a very specific type of man–an actor.   And Shakespeare knew all about men and actors.

Grofield is admirable to Westlake because of his refusal to compromise–less so in his refusal to choose a life and stick to it.  But this flaw also makes him interesting–gives him certain dramatic potentials Parker doesn’t have.   In my opinion, that potential remained largely untapped in the Grofield novels.   And yes, I’m actually going to review the book now.

The Damsel is a fun read.  It’s got adventure, sex, politics, social commentary, some decent if unremarkable supporting characters, and a rather colorful sort of travelogue for a part of Mexico Westlake had clearly visited, and loved very much (we will remind ourselves now that he died in Mexico, and something tells me that if he’d known in advance that would happen he’d have been okay with it, and would have gone anyway–vaya con dios, amigo).    I enjoyed reading and rereading it, and I say without malice that it’s the weakest novel Westlake had produced under his name or Stark’s up to this point.

I’m going to do something now I’ve never done before and will probably never do again–link to someone else’s synopsis of a book–save me a lot of time.   So venture on over to what will always be the best Stark-related website anywhere on the internet–don’t forget to come back and finish reading this.   Okay, you back?   Let’s proceed.  (Editing, much later–well, that synopsis is gone, along with the website.  Maybe not one of my better ideas.  Oh well.)  (Editing again–hey, it’s back!  All my ideas are great!)

Now obviously a synopsis, no matter how detailed and well-written, never gives you the full flavor of a book.   But just reading that over–does that sound like a Richard Stark to you?   Me neither.  It’s got a lot of the basic components, but they’re put together differently, and that’s because Grofield is not, as I think we’ve sufficiently established, at all the same kind of protagonist as Parker.  So in this first outing, Westlake I think was trying to do the Stark voice, but had a hard time sustaining it.   There’s a reason every Grofield contains at least a brief reference to Parker–just to remind us what this Stark guy is capable of when he’s in top form.  Which he isn’t here. The opening, for example–

Grofield opened his right eye, and there was a girl climbing in the window.  He closed that eye, opened the left, and she was still there.  Gray skirt, blue sweater, blond hair, and long tanned legs straddling the windowsill. But this room was on the fifth floor of the hotel.   There was nothing outside that window but air and a poor view of Mexico City.

Okay, so no “When Grofield opened his right eye, he saw a girl climbing in the window.”   That’s a Parker opening, and this isn’t Parker.  Then we hear that the hotel room has a poor view of Mexico City–something Parker wouldn’t remotely care about–Stark might, but I doubt he’d have bothered to say so in this context–and I think the problem here is that Westlake has a hard time writing in the Stark voice if Parker isn’t part of the narrative.  He needs Parker to keep him from straying into the patented Westlake-ian asides and commentaries, just like Grofield needs Parker to anchor him. Just a bit further down the page–

She said “Are you one of them?  Her voice was scratchy with panic.

“That depends.   Sometimes I’m one of them and other times it doesn’t seem worth the effort.   I haven’t been one of them lately, because I haven’t been well.”

Grofield has a tendency towards the meta-textual–at times, he seems to be commenting on the narrative, as if he’s aware that’s what it is–he’s like a Pirandello character that wandered into a crime novel.  Or if you prefer, Bugs Bunny winking at the audience, saying “Ain’t I a stinker?” (and I do actually prefer that).   And this can be explained away easily enough as a sort of coping mechanism–he reduces every new and potentially dangerous situation into a scene from a play.   But sometimes I think he really does know we’re watching him, and unlike Parker, he’s going to wink at us now and again.   Because he’s such a ham.

As we’ve already been told, in spite of his personal aversion to working in Hollywood, he is, just like his creator, a longtime cinema addict, and he is constantly casting himself in movies–westerns, gangster films, spy films, romances, whatever.   He hears movie scores in his head, that change in response to what’s happening.   He is the protagonist of his own open-ended self-produced epic, and this is yet another coping mechanism.   He knows he can die, but he doesn’t fully believe it most of the time–because he’s the hero!

So anyway, after a series of lies he and this very pretty charming and principled young girl named Ellen Marie Fitzgerald (Elly for short) tell each other, he finds out what’s really going on with her.   Her father, a respected doctor from Philadelphia, has agreed to help murder the dictator of a small fictional Latin American country called Guerrero (which would become a standby for Westlake in future books–think of it as south-of-the-border Monequois).   He’s doing it for noble but abstract motives–to help a powerful man, a friend of  his, take control of that country and lift it out of poverty.

She knows this one act will destroy her father’s identity as a healer forever–hollow him out, make him a shell of himself.   She says it’s because murder is wrong, but she lets Grofield kill a few thugs hired to stop them–she engages in a bit of violence herself.   She’s doing this for her dad.  That’s her real motive. But who is Grofield doing it for?   Well, mainly himself, he says.  He likes the girl, and easily talks her into bed once they’re hiding out at a warm springs resort in San Miguel de Allende, but it isn’t quite gallantry that is making him go to such extremes to help her.   It isn’t entirely pragmatism either, but he does have an angle.

The pragmatic aspect is that he will need help to get papers that will allow him to leave Mexico with his loot, and helping her out will put him in contact with people who can make that happen.  But he doesn’t know that’s an option until she tells him the whole story, which doesn’t happen right away (she doesn’t want anyone to find out her father is involved in this plot). So once he realizes the girl is trouble–he could just ditch her.  He’s got lots of money.   He could rent a car, go to that resort by himself, not worry about the hired thugs, and there are people he could eventually find who’d cook up a fake passport for him in exchange for cash.  That’s what Parker would do.

But Parker has no interest in sex when he’s working.   Grofield is not so fortunate.  He’s also not so cold-hearted towards people in general.   He has a tendency to get involved, against his own best judgment.   In the first three novels, he’s trying to just be a bastard who doesn’t give a damn, like Parker, but the storyteller won’t let him–which is why I question whether the storyteller is Richard Stark.

Grofield can’t afford much of a conscience in his line of work–either one, really.   But particularly the one he’s practicing right now.  He will kill when he has to, and feel little or no guilt afterwards–probably writing them off as unfortunate extras–the coping mechanism again.   But he’s interested in people–all people–in a way Parker is not.   He studies them, their mannerisms, their motivations–he can empathize with them–he’s got to, in order to be a good actor. He can’t live with his emotions down below the surface all the time, like Parker.   He also can’t afford to get too sentimental about most people, or he’ll end up dead or jailed.  His goal is personal freedom, and creative fulfillment–and for that, you need people–but you also need to know where to draw the line between their interests and yours.  Never an easy line to draw.

Somehow, just like Mary Deegan did back in Copper Canyon, this girl has managed to cast him as her leading man, hook him, albeit not so permanently.   He’s ready to walk out on the gig if it gets too crazy, but he’s reluctant–he’s certainly not going to leave before the big love scene.   He’s also not going to lie to her–he tells her he’s got a wife, repeatedly.   This is a temporary thing that’s happening between them–no matter how much they like each other, they will eventually part.  She decides she likes him enough to just go with it.   This happens over and over with Grofield; none of these women ever seem to threaten his marriage, and the only thing that keeps it from being completely unbelievable is that–he’s an actor.   And Mary knew right from the start that he was also a thief.

The thing is, Elly has her own agenda–she needs Grofield to save her dad.   So she’s not so pure either, and nobody’s asking her to be.   No point appealing to the innate nobility of a rogue, so she appeals to his sex drive, his self-interest, and his flair for the dramatic, in equal measure.   She’s enjoying every minute of it, but it’s not true love on her side either.   She’s idealistic, but she’s no fool. So what Westlake is doing here is trying to play the Stark game of motivations–why people do what they do–only in a very different context.   And it seems more like the Westlake game to me.

Thing is, Stark usually has Parker to serve as a sort of point of reference–Parker not being truly human, he serves to show us what humans are really like, by comparison.   Grofield is extremely human, but he lives by a code somewhat similar to Parker’s Darwinian drives.   It’s harder to make it work and I don’t think he manages it this time.   I’ll let you know if I think he managed it in any of the subsequent three books, once I get around to rereading and reviewing them.

What else is going on in the book?  A whole section is devoted to the other players in the game–a rich ex-governor who wants to play God in Guerrero, Elly’s conflicted doctor dad, the son of Guerrero’s dictator, and the politician’s son, who works for that dictator.   These people give us the identity puzzles Westlake loves to solve under any name. The dictator’s son, a rather admirable young man educated in America, decides he really wants to be the governor’s son.  The governor wants him to be his catspaw, take over for his father, and all he wants is to be an American, and to follow in his benefactor’s footsteps.   You realize he’ll actually be a better American than most native-born yanks, and he wants nothing more to do with Guerrero–he believes in our values more than most of us do–Westlake reminding us that immigration is itself a form of identity switch.   You can’t go home again and you may not even want to.  But much as his own father disgusts him, he’s still shocked when a man brutally tortured and disfigured by his father’s secret police tries to kill him.

The politician’s son (a rather soulless young man) chooses to be the dictator’s court follower–when Pozos is nearly killed, he reveals his true nature–he’s been worshiping at the altar of  General Pozos–a truly disgusting corrupt venial soulless man he’s idealized into a great one.   He despises the common folk his father wants to improve.

“You know what I say?” Harrison turned to starte at Grofield, his hands clutching the edge of the table.  “I say, if a hundred men starve themselves ot death in darkness in order to produce one after-dinner cigar for General Pozos to enjoy on just one evening of his life, those hundred men have fulfilled their purpose!  What else would they do with their lives, what more meaningful than devote themselves to the pleasure of one of the few men who are really and truly alive?  The people of Guerrero should be proud to have General Pozos as their leader!”

“Grofield said, “I understand your own father is a different kind of leader, has maybe a different attitude towards people.”

“Oh, all that.  I grew up with that, I know all about that.  I think it’s all very praiseworthy, I’m sure my father did the people of Pennsylvania proud, I’m not saying there’s anything wrong with being an administrator.  But General Pozos–He’s so far above that paperwork bureaucrat sort of thing, he’s so–He’s a lion in a jungle full of rabbits.”

I see this syndrome a lot in the present day, here in the States–certain news commentators, pundits, mainly of a conservative bent, who become enamored of foreign strongmen, wishing they could come over here and take charge of things.   Grass is always greener.   And toadies are always toadies.

The doctor is ready to betray his Hippocratic Oath and use his skills to quietly murder General Pozos because the governor has convinced him it’s the only way to help these poor people–but Elly is right–it’s eating away at his soul.   He isn’t a killer.   He would do it, but it would finish him as a man.  Then, when he sees his daughter wounded in her effort to reach him, he realizes what killing really is–and the illusion of benevolence is shattered.

And the governor–well–we don’t really find out what his reaction is to having his plans spoiled.   But we do see that he realizes how much he cares about young Juan Pozos–that he and the General have, in effect, changed sons.   And when Juan is almost murdered, he does perhaps begin to see that this personal relationship may mean more to him than his grand ambitions.    That Juan may be his true legacy–that Juan may become the man he dreamed of being, but never quite was, somehow.

Yeah, it’s a bit pat.   Well written, mind you.  Entertaining.  And containing certain insights.   But I can’t work up a lot of enthusiasm for it, because it doesn’t quite know what it is.   The book itself is an identity puzzle–half Westlake, half Stark.   Yes, Stark is an aspect of Westlake.   He cares about identity too.   But he writes about it in a different way than Westlake.   And somehow, the two approaches don’t mingle well.   The result is entertaining, but not entirely satisfying.  For Grofield to work, he’s going to have to choose whose character he’s going to be–Westlake’s or Stark’s.  He can’t be both.  Not at the same time, anyway.

What’s the point being made in this book, which seemingly suggests those who dream of imposing their own solutions to mankind’s problems  are fools, and they’d be better off cultivating their own gardens, as Candide would put it?   That everybody should be like Grofield?   God help the world if that ever happened.   It’s the last thing Grofield would ever want–somebody’s got to do all the jobs he doesn’t want to do, try to hold things together, or there’ll be no audience for his plays.   There’ll be no world for him to stage them in.  But it doesn’t have to be him–he’s opted out of that life.  He did a job he didn’t particularly want, to get what he needed–he played the hero, literally galloping in on a horse at the last moment to save the day.  And he won the heart (and body) of the fair damsel–who knows perfectly well he’s going to ditch her now.

They work out the details of the story they’re telling (Grofield is an ‘adventurer’–no need to mention what kind of adventures he normally has), so that Grofield can get his papers, and take his money home to Mary, where they can use it to put on theatricals, and be free for a while longer.   Elly, sort of informally engaged to the governor’s son for much of her life, was used to the idea of marrying him someday, but now, having seen his true colors, she opts to accompany Grofield part of the way home.

“All these years, Bob’s been the strong, silent type, that’s what most attracted me about him.   Thank God he finally opened his mouth before I married him.”

“Speaking of married,” Grofield reminded her, “I still am.”

She shook her head.  “Not till we cross the border,” she said.”

Elly seems remarkably unperturbed about this situation–to the point where you wonder if maybe the fantasy has gone past the point of reasonable suspension of disbelief.   Maybe not–maybe she’s just found out she’s an adventurer herself–why shouldn’t women get to be rogues too?   But this is another problem with the Grofields–yes, he’s charming, and interesting, and strangely honest about the things that matter, but seriously–women are not that understanding.   Nobody is.  You just have to go with it.   Or else read something else.

So I’m not entirely happy with the book, or with this review, but I’m strangely happy to be writing about Grofield, because he’s a puzzle all unto himself.  A puzzle I look forward to tackling several times more.   And, I think, a puzzle that has a lot to tell us about Donald Westlake.   Who briefly played at being an actor, before he found his true calling–and found ways of incorporating that shortlived dream into his real work.

But his best dreams were the ones that convinced us–and nobody ever convinced us quite like Parker.  Who in the next book is going to prove that he’s Grofield’s polar opposite in yet another way–by embracing monogamy.   Yes, it’s time we met Claire Carroll.  A very rare coinage indeed–a solid Gold Medal.  And a much better book than The Damsel.   And one that at least some Parker fans have retrospectively wished was never written.   But for me, the job is to figure out why it was written.    Oh, and one more thing–what color is Claire Carroll’s hair?   It’s a knottier question than you’d think.


Filed under Donald Westlake novels