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

Over on Existential Ennui I’ve been making my way through Donald “Richard Stark” Westlake’s Parker novels for close to two years now, intermittently reviewing each one in turn. I followed my last review, of 1972’s Plunder Squad (Parker #15), with a review Joe Gores’s Parker-related 1972 crime novel Dead Skip, which I cross-posted on The Violent World of Parker, and I’ll be reviewing 1974’s Butcher’s Moon (Parker #16) before too long, as well as looking at various aspects of two different editions of that book. But alongside the Parkers I’ve also been reviewing Westlake’s Alan Grofield novels, and it’s the fourth of those, 1971’s Lemons Never Lie, that I’ll be turning to next.

Ahead of that, though, and in light of Trent’s recent post on the new University of Chicago Press editions of the Grofield novels, I thought it might be a good time to re-post on here my three previous Grofield reviews. Some TVWoP regulars may have already read these, but I figure there’s enough of you that haven’t to make the enterprise worthwhile. (Plus it saves me writing anything new this week.) In my opinion the reviews improve as they continue (they certainly increase in length, if that’s any indication of anything), as I develop my thoughts on and theories about the novels, but give ’em a read and see what you think, beginning with

The Damsel, Hodder & Stoughton UK, 1968

The Damsel (1967)

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 terribly 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. On the strength of The Damsel, that criticism sounds about right to me.

Which isn’t to say the novel 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’s 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.*

The Damsel, Signet US, 1969

* Obviously I did persist with the Grofield novels, else I wouldn’t be posting reviews of the subsequent books on here…