Monday, January 16, 2006

Lemons Never Lie

Lemons Never Lie
I've been saying for a long time now that Donald Westlake is the most accomplished crime fiction writer not only of his generation but of our era. I reread his Richard Stark novel Lemons Never Lie last night and believe even more in my opinion.

Back in the late sixties and early seventies I could seldom afford to buy a hardcover book--had to save my money for liquor and drugs; the important things first, right?--but one day in (probably 1971) I found a copy of Lemons in a small bookstore, read twenty or thtirty pages and just had to have it. While most of of the other books I bought during that time are long gone, I kept my copy of Lemons on my keeper shelf in my office. The holy books go there.

While this is a Stark novel, it's about Parker's pal Grofield rather than Parker. Grofield is a stage actor (thinks film is slumming) who supports himself and his summer theater by a) having his wife work in a supermarket and b) him robbing anything he thinks he can get away with.

When Lemons opens up, we see Grofield at low ebb. No money. How's he going to operate it with no money? Fortunately, he's asked to take part in a robbery. He flies to Vegas to meet the guy who is setting it up but while there Grofield's enthusiasm for the caper dies quickly.

Andrew Myers is a sharpie, an amateur and one of those people who seem to have no hesitation about killing people. Myers is the most intriguing and amusing character in the book. The robbery he pitches to Grofield and the other men in the Vegas room would entail, according to Myers, killing something like ten-twelve people. Dan Leach, a friend of Grofield's, agrees that Myers is a maniac. No reason to kill one person on a caper like this let alone as many as Myers hs in mind. Grofield and Leach walk.

Later on that night, Leach gets in a craps game and and wins twelve grand. Afterward, he and Grofield walk back to their respective rooms. Then intruders crash Grofield's room, slap him around, demanding the twelve grand. They've obviously followed the wrong guy from the game. They want Leach. Later, they get him and their money. Leach can't identify them but Grofield knows it's Myers and his buddy.

This sets up a book of cross and criss-cross that is rich in surprise, droll moments in a whole bunch of carnage, and some of the best writing I've ever read. The way Westlake chooses to write is extraordinarily difficult, the way John D. MacDonald always did. Most writers try to write around or minimize such difficulties. Westlake takes them head on and wrestles them to the ground. There are at least three set pieces in this book good enought to build a writing class around. Writers should study the way he incorporates exposition in a dramatic scene without slowing the scene at all.

The prize here for me is Myers. I always remember when I was staying in a motel one night. The film crew and I were sitting in the lounge drinking some beers when there was this explosion of noise from somewhere out in the rather lavish lobby. Screams. Cries. Angry shouts. We stayed right where we were. The upshot being that two masked robbers had stuck up the place and killed three people for no reason at all. There really are Myers in the world and they are so reckless and at times so insane that they are at moments amusing. You're not dealing with human behavior as most us know it; you're dealing with phenomonolgy at a terrifying level.

A final point. Since I'm inclined to be tentative about a lot of things, Grofield's easier for me to identify with than Parker. I'd like to be Parker but it ai't ever gonna happen. I'm not that tough or that competent. Grofield, if I wanted to use him as a role model, is a little more within my reach.

This is one more Westlake masterpiece that goes on the shelf wth The Seventh, The Ax, Adios Scheherazade, High Adventure and several others.

You'll probably have a difficult time finding Lemons Never Lie. But I'd heardthat Charles Ardai at Hardcase was reprinting it this year. Got this e-mail from him today:

We've got it scheduled for July, which means that the book should start showing up in stores at the end of June. (It's one of my very favorite Westlakes too.)

posted by Gormania at 3:02 PM 0 comments


Blogger Stephen D. Rogers said...

In a bookstore today, I saw a Hard Case I hadn't noticed before and thought it was the one you mentioned here, my memory not being what it once was.

Nope. What I bought was McBain's "The Gutter and the Grave." And it's great.

11:48 AM  
Blogger Ethan Iverson said...

"Lemons Never Lie" is great. It is the last of the solo Grofield books, and the first one that isn't goofy. In the others ("The Damsel," "The Dame," and "The Blackbird") Stark tried to do adventure and spy glosses that aren't really as strong as the Parker series. Tired of the frolicking about, in "Lemons" Stark puts Grofield through a scenario just as tough and vicious as any Parker ever had to deal with. (Claire, Parker's woman, was never raped like Grofield's wife is in "Lemons," although Claire had a close call in "Deadly Edge.")

Of course, in the bloodiest Stark, "Butcher's Moon," Grofield is sent home in an ambulance, barely alive, and without a finger. It is always impressive how Stark just lets the events happen to his characters. The express train of the narrative slows for no one: compassion is not allowed!

10:57 AM  
Blogger Joe said...

I just picked up "Lemons" the other day... I'm always excited to find a Stark book I haven't read yet (can't wait for the new Parker). You're right about it not being as silly as the previous Grofields, and being much stronger for it. One question I had on this one--and since this is the first Stark blog I've come across I might as well post it here--what was the story with the tiff between Myers and Brock at the end? Where Brock puts his hands on his hips and it's described as "womanish." Was this supposed to be some kind of hint that there was a homosexual realationship between the two characters? That was the sense I was getting, but it seemed so odd for Stark to have thrown that in there. Any thoughts?

8:46 PM  

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