The Pequod Review:
The Ax is the story of Burke Devore, an unemployed paper executive who is so desperate for a job that he decides to start murdering his competition. The book’s plot (and writing) are deceptively simple, but Donald Westlake (1933-2008) creates a persuasive first-person character study of middle-management desperation, and sustains a pitch-perfect tone throughout.
Here are the opening paragraphs of the book; it is clear Westlake learned from his experience as a pulp fiction writer how important it is to grab the reader’s attention and never let go:
I’ve never actually killed anybody before, murdered another person, snuffed out another human being. In a way, oddly enough, I wish I could talk to my father about this, since he did have the experience, had what we in the corporate world call the background in that area of expertise, he having been an infantryman in the Second World War, having seen “action” in the final march across France into Germany in ’44-’45, having shot at and certainly wounded and more than likely killed any number of men in dark gray wool, and having been quite calm about it all in retrospect. How do you know beforehand that you can do it? That’s the question.
Well, of course, I couldn’t ask my father that, discuss it with him, not even if he were still alive, which he isn’t, the cigarettes and the lung cancer having caught up with him in his sixty-third year, putting him down as surely if not as efficiently as if he had been a distant enemy in dark gray wool.
The question, in any case, will answer itself, won’t it? I mean, this is the sticking point. Either I can do it, or I can’t. If I can’t, then all the preparation, all the planning, the files I’ve maintained, the expense I’ve put myself to (when God knows I can’t afford it), have been in vain, and I might as well throw it all away, run no more ads, do no more scheming, simply allow myself to fall back into the herd of steer mindlessly lurching toward the big dark barn where the mooing stops.
Today decides it. Three days ago, Monday, I told Marjorie I had another appointment, this one at a small plant in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, that my appointment was for Friday morning, and that my plan was to drive to Albany Thursday, take a late afternoon flight to Harrisburg, stay over in a motel, taxi to the plant Friday morning, and then fly back to Albany Friday afternoon. Looking a bit worried, she said, “Would that mean we’d have to relocate? Move to Pennsylvania?”
“If that’s the worst of our problems,” I told her, “I’ll be grateful.”
After all this time, Marjorie still doesn’t understand just how severe our problems are. Of course, I’ve done my best to hide the extent of the calamity from her, so I shouldn’t blame Marjorie if I’m successful in keeping her more or less worry-free. Still, I do feel alone sometimes.
This has to work. I have to get out of this morass, and soon. Which means I’d better be capable of murder.
And even in his spare prose, he creates moments of vivid imagery:
I squeeze the trigger, and the Luger jumps up in the window space and the left lens of his glasses shatters and his left eye becomes a mineshaft, running deep into the center of the earth.
He drops backward. Just down and back, no fuss, no lunging, just down and back. His mail frets away from him in the breeze.
The Ax is the work of a consummate craftsman. This is arguably Donald Westlake's masterpiece.