Tuesday 14 September 2010

The Grofield Files: The Dame (1969) by Richard Stark; a Review

Gird your loins, people: it's Westlake Week Mark II, Day 2. And today, instead of more Westlake Scores (oh yes, there are Westlake Scores a-plenty to come...), I thought I'd post a review of a Donald Westlake book – or rather a Richard Stark book, the second of Westlake/Stark's novels to star part-time actor/part-time thief/occasional Parker cohort Alan Grofield. And like its predecessor, it's a right old mixed bag.

Originally published in 1969, two years after The Damsel (Grofield #1), The Dame in fact follows on almost directly from the first book. As the novel opens, Grofield is hopping off a plane at Puerto Rico airport, having just left Mexico and the clutches of Elly, his romantic partner in The Damsel. He's come to Puerto Rico on the promise of some kind of financial reward for a shady undertaking of some kind... and if that sounds vague, that's because that's all Grofield himself knows at this point. It's a thin opening premise, and immediately presents problems, not least the fact that Grofield still has all his cash from the score he and Parker undertook in The Handle. Grofield doesn't need to work for a while, so his motivation for going to Puerto Rico – where he has no idea what he'll be doing, or if there's any money at all in it for him – and therefore the whole raison d'etre of the book, is somewhat suspect. Like, why is he even bothering?

Unfortunately, the rest of the novel never really recovers from this fatal undermining. A couple of times Grofield ends up doing things almost because the plot demands he do them, not out of any particular character motivation. Indeed, here Grofield doesn't seem to have much of a character at all, apart from being a bit of a wise-ass. Westlake drops the quirks he established for Grofield in earlier Parker books and in The Damsel, like the fact that Grofield hears a constant movie soundtrack in his head. Instead the writer simply moves his (literal) actor around the stage, dumping him in a slightly boring murder mystery and giving him the occasional nudge when the already slack pace slackens too much.

For some reason Westlake also jettisons the four-part Stark structure and temporal tricks established over the course of the Parker series and The Damsel (no Stark Cutaway here, I'm afraid), making The Dame a very straightforward affair. And on top of all that, the book suffers from the same tonal problem that blighted The Damsel, once again falling awkwardly between two stools, being neither tough enough to be a good Parker novel nor funny enough to be a good Westlake caper. There's not a lot of tension here, and no laffs either, although if you're lucky you might raise a small smile.

But despite these (admittedly lengthy) criticisms, this isn't a bad book. It is, after all, still Westlake, and is as elegantly and unfussily written as you'd expect. And there is good stuff here, particularly in the middle section, where Westlake shoves Grofield into an Agatha Christie story, casting him in the role of the interrogator and having him question the residents of a house in the Puerto Rican jungle in order to establish who the murderer is (and so clear himself). This is where The Dame starts to come alive, to the extent that it's easy to imagine Westlake had the idea of doing his own version of a Christie whodunnit and built the rest of the book around these sometimes witty, dialogue-heavy scenes.

Whatever the case, like The Damsel before it, The Dame has to be considered a lesser Westlake effort, one really only for Parker completists (which is probably most of the people reading this post). Still, despite my reservations, it can't be that rubbish a book: I'm still planning on reading the next Grofield novel, The Blackbird. Guess that's just the inexorable pull of the man like Westlake and the Parker universe: once you're hooked, you'll read anything even remotely Parker-related, no matter how half-arsed.


  1. You dont like Grofield in Parker books ? I found him to be alot of fun in those early Parkers. Thats why i liked The Damsel even if it was a lesser effort.

  2. Oh don't get me wrong, I like Grofield just fine in the Parkers. I just don't think he's terribly well served in his own novels, at least not thus far – I've still got The Blackbird and Lemons Never Lie to read, and I know Lemons is very well regarded, so I live in hope. And like I say, The Dame is still a decent enough book.

    And thank you, sir, for the comments here and on the Sour Lemon Score post. Always good to get another opinion in the mix.