Monday, January 31, 2011

"The Ax" by Donald E. Westlake

Donald E. Westlake was the mad scientist of crime fiction for nearly 50 years, experimenting with style and structure under myriad pen names while creating some of the funniest, darkest and most original examples of the genre. He blessed us with such unforgettable characters as Dortmunder, Mitch Tobin, Parker, Grofield and a host of others. Burke Devore, the homicidal job hunter from his thriller The Ax (Mysterious Press, 1997), isn't in the same league as those others but is still interesting enough to make 273 pages turn quickly.

Two years after being downsized out of his product manager position at a Connecticut paper mill, the still unemployed and increasingly desperate Devore discovers his dream job at a paper processing plant in Arcadia, New York. The catch? Somebody already has the job. But with his morale at an all-time low and tensions mounting at the homestead with every passing day, Devore isn't about to let a minor problem like that stand between him and happily-ever-after. Faster than you can say acid-free archival permanence, our middle-aged family man is unearthing his father's mothballed Luger from WWII and hatching a lunatic scheme to kill off that "fat and happy, smug and secure" production line manager so he can take over the position himself.

But before he does that, Devore needs to eliminate some of his competition. By printing up letterhead stationery for a nonexistent company and placing false want ads in trade journals, he obtains the résumés of other unemployed middle managers in the paper industry. After whittling the pile down to six possible applicants, all of whom have more experience than he has, Devore decides to finish them off as well!

Although the matter-of-fact treatment of a mass murderer going about his grisly business automatically recalls the works of Fredric Brown and Jim Thompson (which Westlake paid homage to in Wax Apple and The Jugger, respectively), The Ax most closely resembles a pastiche of earlier projects by Westlake himself. The story is told in a darkly humorous first-person style reminiscent of Two Much and Enough, but stripped down to the level of the Parker novels he wrote as "Richard Stark," with Devore bearing a striking resemblance to the Jerry Blake character from the Westlake-scripted THE STEPFATHER. Still, the author manages to fit these familiar elements together nicely, creating a satirical thriller that delivers its share of shocks, twists and belly laughs. -- Chris Poggiali

(Fangoria #168, November 1997)

1 comment:

Zachary Kelley said...

Totally agree, but it's a really fun read.