The Ax ( Donald E Westlake)

Wanted: Middle management for the oversight of an assembly line in an industrial paper factory. College degree and experience a must. Homicidal maniacs welcome to apply. Burke Devore is a typical middle-aged guy with a steady job, a wife and two kids. When he gets laid off he spends 2 years looking for new employment and realizes that there are too many people with more education and experience looking for similar work. Donald Westlake wrote this in 1997, but his publishers missed an opportunity during the last economic bust to reissue this book with great fanfare because it’s even more poignant now. There is not a single dull moment in the entire novel and to top it all off, the ending is even more brilliant.

After Burke reads an article in a trade journal about a factory doing the kind of work he specialized in along with an interview of a manager there, he realizes that it’s exactly the kind of job he’s suited for. Broke and desperate, Burke comes up with a unique solution. He’ll kill the manager and apply for his job. But with so many unemployed in his industry, there’s bound to be a better candidate. So Burke places a phony ad in a trade journal, collects the resumes of the people who would apply for the job, selects the ones who would be the most competition and sets out to eliminate the six people he’s identified. Burke knows it will take a terrible toll on him, but he’s determined to get that job. I’ve noted before that I’m amazed at how Westlake was always able to shift gears between his comic writing in books like his Dortmunder series and the hard boiled Parker crime novels he wrote as Richard Stark.

This is another facet of his writing. The concept seems almost darkly funny at first, and this could have been played for black humour easily. But Westlake writes a taut and tragic tale of an ordinary guy committing horrific crimes, and he makes the point that it’s more than just economics driving Burke. His identity is wrapped up in his job, and he has come to conclusion that he’s acting in self-defense to preserve himself and his family. I also liked how Westlake portrayed Burke going through various kinds of emotions related to his murders. Sometimes he’s overwhelmed with guilt. Sometimes he gets incredibly angry at the people in his way. Sometimes he has nothing but contempt for his victims for not being as willing as he is to do what it takes. The whole book is pretty chilling, and Burke comes across as a character that you’ll both sympathize with and fear. A classic pulp novel by a great writer.

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Comments

  1. This premise sounds amazing! Definitely a book I’ll be sure to pick up, thanks for sharing!

    Liked by 1 person

  2. My pleasure. Thanks for commenting! 🙂

    Like

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