Thursday, October 10, 2013

Starktober 9: The Damsel

Parker doesn't appears once in the pages of The Damsel -- just so you know. This time out, Stark follows the adventures of Parker's fellow thief (and occasional compatriot) Alan Grofield, using a lighter, breezier tone, longer sentences, and a sensibility tuned a few stations away from hardboiled in the direction of wry amusement -- the Grofield books are clearly a waypoint on the journey from Parker to Dortmunder, but, as of The Damsel in 1967, Stark (aka Donald Westlake) hadn't made it all the way yet.

(If anyone wants to argue differently from the evidence of The Fugitive Pigeon or The Spy in the Ointment, other books Westlake was writing in the same stretch of mid-60s, I'd be willing to listen to it; he was clearly on that road for a while.)

After the events of The Handle, Grofield is recuperating in a bed in a Mexico City hotel, several bullets having been removed from his body but their damage still healing. He has no passport or other papers, but, perhaps to make up for it, he does have a suitcase full of money, his take from the heist in The Handle. And he gets a gorgeous young woman dumped into his lap when she climbs into his window, shimmying down a rope of sheets from the room just above where she was being held captive.

Elly Fitzgerald runs through a few stories about those kidnappers before settling on something close to the truth -- but Grofield never quite tells her the full truth about himself, either, or not in a way she's expected to believe. Elly is caught up in a complicated plot of international intrigue, in which the ex-Governor of Pennsylvania has cozied up to General Pozos, the dictator-for-life of the banana republic Guerrero -- to the point of practically exchanging sons, one a press secretary, the other as college-student ward -- but now wants to knock off Pozos and install the college student as the new dictator with the ex-Governor the power behind the throne. Elly's father is to be the new personal doctor for Pozos, and the one to actually make sure he dies in a plausible manner. Pozos will be in Acapulco in a few days, and Elly must get there to warn him.

Elly needs someone's help to do that, and Grofield is there. Luckily, Grofield is much less mercenary, much more susceptible to the charms of young women, and much more puckish than Parker would be -- Stark/Westlake was clearly playing around with the personalities of his heroes at this stage in his career, finding the right tone for each kind of man and building plots around their strengths and weaknesses. For Grofield, this first time out, that means an escalating spiral of danger entered and danger escaped, with a few moments of peace and tranquility with Elly in between. After all, Pozos is cruising the Pacific in his yacht until Friday, and there's only one road to Acapulco -- so Elly and Grofield are in no hurry up until the moment where they're in a total hurry.

It's a silly plot -- much more like Fugitive Pigeon or Spy in the Ointment, though not played directly for laughs, than a Parker book -- but it's serious enough for Honner, the head of the thugs, and for the bullets he and his men are shooting at Elly and Grofield. The Damsel takes its international intrigue from the pages of other paperback novels, though Stark does nearly polish up to the point of believability. It could have made a great movie anywhere in the stretch 1968-1974, but it didn't. There are car chases and gun battles, two separate assassination attempts on different people, and even a last-minute entry by two people on horseback.

If you've been reading a stack of Stark, as I have, a Grofield book is a lovely dish of sherbet in between the heavier courses of Parker -- which, in this metaphor, must be some variety of red meat. I'm looking forward to the other three of them -- nearly as much as I'm looking forward to even more Parker.

Starktober Introduction and Index

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