The Axe by Donald Westlake
1997, 339 pages
Killer Instinct</strong by Joseph Finder
2006 466 pages
The late Donald Westlake wrote under several pseudonyms (including as Richard Stark, when writing about his clever and charismatic criminal “Parker”).
“The Axe” is vintage Westlake – a comedy with serious points to make, which it makes well. It follows the desperate Burke Devore, who “doesn’t need a handout, a lecture, or a doting wife. Devore, a decent suburban fellow with twenty-five years of loyal service as a paper mill manager, needs only one thing: work. Soon, with desperation pounding in his soul, Burke Devore will take control of a life that has spun out of control. Burke Devore will go gunning for a job.”
Written in the first person, this novel could easily be the result of a bet. I can well imagine Westlake and a buddy sitting around and the buddy saying “fifty bucks says you can’t write a novel where your lead guy, a normal Joe, kills – in cold blood – a whole bunch of innocent people, and the reader not only understands why he did it, but actually hopes he gets away with it.” And I can see the buddy ruefully shaking his head in disbelief when he finishes reading the book and having to hand over the cash.
Burke is not naive about capitalism;
“Oh, I knew all that when I started. I knew who the enemy was. But what good does that do me? If I were to kill a thousand stockholders and get away with it clean, what would I gain? What’s in it for me? If I were to kill seven chief executives, each of whom had ordered the firing of at least two thousand good workers in healthy industries, what would I get out of it?
What it comes down to is this, the CEOs and the stockholders who put them there, are the enemy, but they are not the problem. They are society’s problem, but they are not my personal problem.
These six resumes. These are my personal problem.
and along the way there are many stunning observations. Apropos of nothing, here’s one –
When I was a boy, I was for a while a science fiction fan. A lot of us were, until Sputnik. I was twelve when Sputnik flew. All the science fiction magazines I’d read before then, and the movies and TV shows I saw, assumed that outer space belonged by natural rights to Americans. Explorers and settlers and daredevils of space were all Americans, in story after story. And then, out of nowhere, the Russians launched Sputnik, the first space vehicle. The Russians!
We all stopped reading science fiction, then, and turned away form science fiction movies and TV shows. I don’t know about anybody else, but, as I remember it, I turned my interest after that to the western. In the western, there was never any doubt who would win.
This was a joy to read, and although Donald Westlake/Richard Stark is no more, at least he has left us a large back catalogue to be read and re-read with pleasure and admiration.
PS There’s a movie of “The Axe”, in French
Less engaging, less artistically successful, but nonetheless competent, is Joseph Finder’s “Killer Instinct.”
“Jason Steadman lacks the killer instinct to become a real high-flyer. He may be a witty, charismatic guy who’s well-liked at the office, but to the chagrin of his ambitious wife, it looks as if his career has hit a ceiling.
“All that changes when Jason meets Kurt, a former Special Forces officer just back from Iraq, and Jason gets him a job in security. Soon, good things start to happen for Jason – and bad things start to happen to his rivals. As his career takes off, Jason discovers that his path to the top has been achieved by the most “efficient” – and ruthless – means available. And when Jason tries to put a stop to it, he finds that his new best friend has become the most dangerous enemy imaginable…”
It’s a bit long, a bit predictable, but a good way to switch off your brain for a bit.