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I've been a house painter, dishwasher, broiler cook, private detective, military intelligence analyst, and I spent nearly 40 years as a reporter covering crime, 26 of them for the San Francisco Chronicle. These days I write science fiction, fantasy, horror and crime fiction, and I blog about books, films and crimes that don't receive sufficient attention from the mainstream media. I would like to be Elmore Leonard, Raymond Chandler, Ross MacDonald, Dashiell Hammett or George V. Higgins, but all of them are dead so I'll just stick with what I am already doing. . .

Saturday, March 30, 2013

This Model is Not a Lemon!

Lemons Never Lie
By Donald E. Westlake (Writing as Richard Stark)

  • 155 pages
  • University of Chicago Press; April 1, 2012.
  • (Kindle version by Amazon Digital Services, Inc.)
  • ASIN: B007QW58W0

Those familiar with Donald E. Westlake's "Richard Stark" pseudonym will probably not be surprised that a heist goes sour in Lemons Never Lie, a Westlake novel originally published in 1971 and reissued for Kindle last year. 

What may surprise them is that Stark's mononymous professional criminal, Parker, isn't in this book. At one point, Parker's name is dropped by the actual protagonist, Alan Grofield, but that's as close as he gets to making an appearance.

Grofield, you see, is a sometime actor who is trying to support his small theater company in rural Indiana by pulling off the occasional heist. He is one of Parker's associates and is the primary character in four of Westlake's novels under the Richard Stark pseudonym.

Donald E. Westlake (AKA Richard Stark): He gave us thespian/thief Alan Grofield as well as the mononymous professional criminal, Parker. (Courtesy Donaldwestlake.com)

Large-scale armed robberies that go awry are a mainstay of the Richard Stark oeuvre: it seems that almost every heist Parker even pulled ends up with the thief seeking revenge because he has been swindled out of his end of the score. 

But Grofield goes Parker one better in this novel: Parker usually gets robbed just once; Grofield is hit twice by the same bad guy, a nasty piece of work named Andrew Myers.

Myers robs the actor once by accident while trying to rip off another person altogether; he strong arms Grofield the second time after the thespian is part of the crew that steals a large amount of cash from the safe of a shopping center.

(For anyone who has never heard the phrase, Richard Stark crime novels are an apt illustration of the old axiom that there is little honor among thieves; at least, not enough to be worth talking about.)

Grofield first encounters his nemesis in Las Vegas where Myers pitches him and several other professional crooks to join him in staging a payroll robbery at an upstate New York beer brewery. 

That's when Grofield figures out that when it comes to brain-power, Myers is a couple potatoes short of a lug.

During Myers' dog-and-pony show about the robbery -- complete with glossy photographs and diagrams showing how it can be managed -- Grofield learns the plan turns on blowing up a couple of occupied buildings and machine-gunning an entire office full of guards. 

All this to snatch a $120,000 payroll for which each robber will receive less than 20 grand.

To even consider killing that many people for such a pittance marks Myers as a certifiable lunatic, Grofield concludes. But on top of everything else, he plans to give local gangsters ten percent of the score just to let the robbery take place -- a ridiculous notion to most of the pros Myers is trying to recruit. 

He and a chum bug out of Myers' robbery scheme, but he continues to cross paths with the guy afterward -- and each encounter costs him the money he needs to keep his theatrical venture going.

Along the way there is a narrative involving the evergreen theme of revenge, coupled with a combination of high and low jinks that keeps the story lively.

In the Grofield novels, Westlake has a breezy style and believable characters, though the situations they find themselves in are sometimes a little hard to swallow. For example, accepting that Grofield commits high profile crimes to keep his little theater operation going requires a major suspension of disbelief.

On the other hand, what do crooks do when they're not busy hatching their felonious little plans? Few individual crimes result in a score large enough to finance a professional criminal's retirement, so most of them have to work at regular jobs when they aren't busy stealing. 

When it comes right down to it, running a threadbare theatrical company is as sensible as a thief's day job as selling drugs and illegal firearms out of a hot dog stand -- like two non-fictional crooks in San Jose did a couple of years ago; or, more to the point, operating a global booking service for Chinese entertainers like former Wo Hop To Triad boss Peter Chong.

In any event, the Grofield novels are lighter-hearted than the Parker books, in part because Grofield is not quite as single-minded in his villainy -- Parker is a professional criminal and nothing else; Grofield's theatrical activities give him a somewhat wider range of interests and pursuits, and lead him to interaction with a more diverse spectrum of society.

But Grofield, like Parker, is not a person you want to double cross; Lemons Never Lie makes this abundantly clear.

Parker is the real deal, but for a similar story with a little change of pace, the Grofield books offer a solid evening's worth of entertainment. I give three nooses to Lemons Never Lie.

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