Grofield: The Blackbird (1969)

The Blackbird by Richard Stark, (AKA Donald Westlake)

Grofield jumped out of the Ford with a gun in one hand and the empty satchel in the other. Parker was out and running too, and Laufman stayed hunched over the wheel, his foot tapping the accelerator.

The Blackbird opens with an armored car robbery gone awry (in a first chapter shared, with minor variations, with Slayground). Alan Grofield ends up in the hospital, where, in exchange for his freedom, he is “volunteered” by a secret government agency to go to a conference of third-world leaders in Quebec to find out just what the hell they’re up to.

The reason Grofield was picked for this mission is because he knows both General Pozos, dictator of the South American banana republic Guerrero (who he met in The Damsel), and Onum Marba, a powerful politician from the African country Undurwa (who he met in The Dame), both of whom will be at the conference, representing their countries.

After some misadventures, Grofield ends up meeting the title character, Miss Vivian Kamdela of Undurwa, when he wakes up to find her in his hotel room. Through her, he reconnects with Onum Marba, and eventually finds himself in the Canadian wilderness as the only one who can stop a world-threatening weapon from falling into the wrong hands.

The Blackbird seems to be inspired by Alfred Hitchcock’s Notorious. In Notorious, a closet patriot played by Ingrid Bergman is recruited to find out what the Nazis are up to in Brazil. In The Blackbird, Grofield, who makes a point of mocking patriotism, is recruited to find out what various non-democratic countries are up to in Canada. In the process, he, for the first time, seems to recognize that there are virtues beyond self-interest thanks to his interactions with Miss Vivian Kamdela.

My impression is that The Blackbird is the least-loved of all Stark books, and it’s not hard to see why. It’s more thriller than crime novel, upsetting expectations, and it’s far from amazing as a thriller, leaving fans of either genre disappointed. Perhaps recognizing that the brand was being diluted, The Blackbird is the last lighter-hearted book that Westlake would issue under the Richard Stark name.

There’s always something to like in a Richard Stark novel, though, and the pages turn fast enough to make The Blackbird an enjoyable if forgettable read if expectations are minimal.

  • The Blackbird shares its opening scene with Slayground.
  • Known printings and cover gallery.
  • To The Dame, the previous book in the Alan Grofield series.
  • To Deadly Edge, the Parker novel that precedes The Blackbird chronologically.
  • To Slayground, the Parker novel that follows The Blackbird chronologically. (Most of the events in The Blackbird take place after Slayground due to Grofield’s hospital stay, but The Blackbird was published first.)
  • To Lemons Never Lie, the next and final book in the Alan Grofield series.