Monday 7 June 2010

The Grofield Files: The Damsel (1967) by Richard Stark; a Review

Finally polished this one off over the weekend, the first of Richard Stark's four novels starring actor-turned-heister Alan Grofield. Chronologically The Damsel follows on from the eighth Parker novel, The Handle, at the end of which Grofield is left by Parker in a Mexican hotel room recovering from bullet wounds. The Damsel picks up almost immediately after that, as a girl, Elly, swings into Grofield's room through the window and the two of them embark on a cross-country Mexican adventure to stop the assassination of a South American dictator.

Doesn't sound much like a Parker novel, does it? And the Stark four-part structure aside, it's really not. There's some violence, but on the whole the tone is light and often played for laughs – except without actually being funny. I'd read various reports that the Grofield novels kind of fall between two stools: not as hardcore as the Parkers, not as funny as some of the Westlakes. I haven't read any comedy caper Westlakes yet, but that criticism sounds about right to me.

Which isn't to say The Damsel is completely without merit. It's a decent enough read, and actually comes into its own in part three, where we get the Stark Cutaway to, variously, the dictator, General Pozos; his son, Juan; Luke Harrison, the former governor of Pennsylvania (who is plotting to kill Pozos); his son, Bob; and Dr. Fitzgerald, Elly's father and the man tasked with actually offing Pozos. Westlake does something interesting here, moving from one character to the next tag-team style: Harrison sees Pozos' yacht out at sea, and in the following chapter we jump to the yacht; Bob sees Acapulco below him as he flies in on a plane, and then in the next chapter we jump to his father's house below.

Unfortunately it feels as if Westlake loses interest in the final part, which is slightly tossed off and perfunctory. So I'm not sure if I'll bother with the next two Grofield books, The Dame and The Blackbird. I have a lead on a first edition of The Dame, so if that pans out I'll try it, but if not, I'll just read the final Grofield, Lemons Never Lie, which is reportedly much closer in tone to the Parker novels. Speaking of which, it's The Rare Coin Score next for me...


  1. I pretty much agree with your assessment. I can't remember each book that well, but remembering finding none of them up to the galvanized hardness that the Parker name demands.

    He does have some later novels, such as Kawaha, Humans and High Adventure that sound like The Damsel but expanded and taken to their logical and adventurous conclusion. I wonder if the Damsel was his early way to feel around this new direction without being sure where it would go or if he had the clout to get such books published under his own name?

  2. That's an interesting theory. Would make sense. It's funny, I started The Rare Coin Score at lunchtime, and the opening chapters are like coming home again. Parker just feels more alive than anyone in The Damsel, including Grofield.