Monday, October 14, 2013

Starktober 12: The Dame

Richard Stark's Parker novels are all very much the same thing: taut crime thrillers, propelled forward at speed by a single-minded and almost inhumanly focused protagonist, a man designed to be the perfect executor of large robberies, who forces his way through all of the complications his creator can throw at him. But Stark also wrote four novels about Parker's occasional co-worker, the itinerant actor and occasional heister Alan Grofield, and those novels are very different: still crime thrillers, but more worldly, more likely to wander into international intrigue, with a tone somewhere between the noir seriousness of Parker and the goofball charm of the humorous crime stories that "Stark" was beginning to write under his real name, Donald E. Westlake, around the same time.

The Grofield books aren't really stepping stones from Parker to Dortmunder -- Westlake's other most famous character, a masterful organizer of big robberies like Parker whose bad luck is always funny as Parker's is always gripping -- since they're not heist books in the same way. They're really closer to The Spy in the Ointment or a later book like Brothers Keepers, mixing the mid-'60s mania for "secret agent" stories with the major-robbery world Westlake/Stark had already made his own. By the time the second Grofield novel, The Dame, was published in 1969, Parker had appeared in ten novels over the previous seven years -- Grofield would only get two more of his own, while Parker would get six more through 1974, and then an additional eight starting more than twenty years later. So the Grofield series can be seen in the same light as Westlake's other short series -- the five late-'60s traditional private eye mysteries under the name Tucker Coe or the four cozies as Samuel Holt in the mid-'80s -- as experiments that worked well enough to generate books, but didn't catch on with an audience the way Parker and Dortmunder did.

Still, "not catching on" is not even close to "not done well," and The Dame is another superb entertainment from Westlake/Stark, picking up immediately from the end of The Damsel. As The Dame opens, Grofield has still not made it back to his very understanding wife -- the girl he "rescued" from Copper Canyon back in the Parker novel The Score -- since he was sidetracked by another offer, mysterious but promising profit, that sent him to a specific large house on Puerto Rico.

There, he's rubbed the wrong way by the lady of the house, the haughty and demanding Belle Danamato, and decides to just leave. But it's not that simple, and Grofield finds himself dragged back to that house by the henchmen of the American gangster husband Belle is trying to divorce, and, by the end of that night, there's a murder in that big house, and Grofield is framed as the killer.

The Dame then alternates cozy-mystery elements -- down to a climactic, everyone-gathered-in-one-room Grofield speech and reveal of the real murderer -- with the thriller plotting Grofield's more naturally involved in, including car chases, gunfights, and sneaking escapes out of and intrusions into various locations. It doesn't entirely become one thing, though those elements flow into each other reasonably while reading, and Stark maintains a consistent tone. Grofield could have worked in a series of cozy mysteries, perhaps connected to his other life as an actor, but that's not how Stark/Westlake went with him. And he certainly does work in Parker-esque thrillers, since that's where we met him.

So The Dame is something of a chimera, but a plausible one. It would read much better in a run straight through the Grofield books, or on its own, than it did in the middle of a pack of Parker -- but, even for me this month of Starktober, it was a nice palate cleaner, even if it's not nearly as fun and consistent as The Damsel.

Starktober Introduction and Index

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