The Ax

The Ax

4.3 10
by Donald E. Westlake, Michael Kramer
     
 

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Burke Devore is a paper company manager, a man who can tell you everything you ever wanted to know about bleaching processes and the edible wood pulp they put in ice cream. For twenty-five years Burke has provided for his family and played by the rules. Until now. Now Devore is slipping away: from his wife, his family, and from all norms of civilized behavior. Burke… See more details below

Overview

Burke Devore is a paper company manager, a man who can tell you everything you ever wanted to know about bleaching processes and the edible wood pulp they put in ice cream. For twenty-five years Burke has provided for his family and played by the rules. Until now. Now Devore is slipping away: from his wife, his family, and from all norms of civilized behavior. Burke Devore wants his life back. And he will do anything to get it. Donald E. Westlake has written a tale of dark, mesmerizing power about one quiet, ordinary victim of corporate downsizing - who reacts in a most extraordinary way. From his attempts to land a new job, to the growing rift between him and his loved ones, Devore knows that he is running out of time. Believing that there is just one way to earn the only job he has a chance of getting, he sets off on a path from which there can be no turning back - no matter how bizarre and violent, no matter who gets in the way; no matter how evil Burke Devore becomes. Burke Devore is gunning for his competition, and it's getting easier every time...

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Editorial Reviews

Washington Post Book World
Satirical, savage, fast-paced...An expertly entertaining suspense thriller [and] a complex morality tale.
San Diego Union-Tribune
Compelling, unpredictable, and ultimately terrifying...a novel that grabs the reader by the throat and refuses to let go.
Jeff Brown
Eerily gripping....The Ax will hold you; you can't forgo finding out how it ends. -- People
NY Times Book Review
A novel of excruciating brilliance...The Ax will gut your soul: it is engrossing and relentless and all too plausible.
New York Times Book Review
Dark and delicious.
Publishers Weekly - Publisher's Weekly
Westlake is a consummate pro who can deliver both the cheerful zaniness of the Dortmunder novels and thoroughly convincing noir. The Ax is one of his darkest efforts, a mesmerizing chiller. It takes a familiar plight -- Burke Devore, a middle-level executive at a paper company, has been downsized out of what he had imagined was a secure lifetime job -- and gives it a terrifying twist. Not content quietly to abandon his decently prosperous existence, Devore searches out the ideal job at the ideal company and then identifies a half-dozen unemployed potential rivals for the spot and sets out to murder them one by one. Devore is quietly methodical, but not all the killings go quite as planned: in one, he has to kill a wife as well; another turns out to be much messier than anticipated; and then, of course, there looms the final necessary slaughter, of the man who holds the desired job. And will the police figure out what links these mysterious killings before Devore has achieved his goal? Writing with deadpan style, Westlake makes Devore's rage utterly believable. What he can't quite manage, however, is to make a convincing serial killer out of someone who is in most respects so normal, even decent and thoughtful. But the suspense is tight as a steel coil, the background sociology is impeccably developed and the book should have upper-level downsizers trembling in their Guccis at the thought of the hideous anguish they are unleashing on the land.
Library Journal
Burke Devore, 52, laid off from his middle-management position at a paper mill two years before, decides to eliminate competitors for a dream job at a mill in New York. He places dummy ads in trade journals to attract them, then stalks and kills them (at first with a pistol, later in a variety of disgusting ways -- most in broad daylight, with no witnesses). That's about all there is to this strange novel from the author of the John Dortmunder mystery series, e.g., What's the Worst That Could Happen? (LJ 9/15/96). A potentially compelling look at the effects of long-term unemployment on the psyche of a man of limited prospects and intellect, the result is merely a step-by-step guide to executing innocent people, generally lacking in conflict, irony, and farcical elements. Devore's wife and children are sketchy, and humorous situations are underdeveloped. The point of all this is buried deep. Not recommended.Laurel A. Wilson, Alexandrian P.L., Mount Vernon, Ind.
Kirkus Reviews
A downsized line manager plots a murderous way to winnow the competition for his next job, in this unusually somber tale from the reigning king of crime comedy.

Though he saw the co-workers dismissed along with him turn instantly from teammates to competitors, Burke Devore knew from the first that they weren't the cause of his misery; the real enemy was the bosses, the board of directors, the shareholders willing to do anything to squeeze every ounce of profit from the paper company that's laid him off. But there's nothing he can do about the enemy, he ruefully acknowledges after two years of anguish; the only way he can claw his way back to a job is to create a vacancy through homicide—having first identified and eliminated the half-dozen most likely fellow-managers he'll be competing with. So he prepares a list of the best-qualified people close enough to his Connecticut home to be realistic competitors; practices firing his ancient Luger; and sets out on a purposeful odyssey to eliminate them. Westlake, the unrivaled master of the formula caper comedy (What's the Worst That Could Happen?, 1996, etc.), rises effortlessly to the challenge of varying these executions, keeping up the tension—even though you know (or think you know) exactly what's going to happen every time—by interspersing them with vignettes of Devore's quietly ruined home life, as his wife, who's obviously taken up with another man, drags him to counseling and his teenaged son is picked up for burglary. What's missing is any sense of cumulative horror or revulsion as Devore, doggedly distancing himself from his targets by reviewing their resumés and thinking of them by their initials, methodically works to make his next job opportunity happen.

Though this lack of affect—especially in the chilly epilogue—is presumably Westlake's point, it sadly limits the range and psychological penetration of this grim '90s update of The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit.

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Product Details

ISBN-13:
9780736637749
Publisher:
Books on Tape, Inc.
Publication date:
08/01/1997
Series:
John Dortmunder Series
Edition description:
Unabridged, 7 Cassettes

Read an Excerpt

The Ax


By Donald E. Westlake

Warner Books

Copyright © 1997 Donald Westlake
All right reserved.

ISBN: 0-446-60608-1


Chapter One

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.

The Luger went into my overnight bag, in the same plastic bag as my black shoes. The Luger had been my father's, his one souvenir from the war, a sidearm he'd taken from a dead German officer that either he or someone else had shot, earlier that day, from the other side of the hedgerow. My father had removed the clip full of bullets from the Luger and transported it in a sock, with the gun itself traveling in a small dirty pillowcase he'd taken from a half-wrecked house somewhere in muddy France.

My father never fired that gun, so far as I know. It was simply his trophy, his version of the scalp you take from your defeated enemy. Everybody shot at everybody and he was still standing at the end, so he took a gun from one of the fallen.

I too had never fired that gun, nor any other. It frightened me, in fact. For all I knew, if I were to pull the trigger with the clip in place in the butt, the thing would blow up in my hands. Still, it was a weapon, and the only one to which I had ready access. And there was certainly no record of its existence, at least not in America.

After my father died his old trunk was moved from his spare room to my basement, the trunk containing his army uniform and folded duffel bag and a sheaf of the orders that had moved him from place to place, way back then, in the unimaginable time before I was born. A time I like to think of as simpler and cleaner than ours. A time in which you knew with clarity who your enemies were, and they were who you killed.

The Luger, in its pillowcase, was at the bottom of the trunk, beneath the musty-smelling olive-drab uniform, its clip lying beside it, no longer concealed in that long-ago sock. I found it down there, the day I made my decision, and brought it out, and carried gun and clip up to my "office," the small spare room we used to call the guest room before I was at home all the time and in need of an office. I closed the door, and sat at the small wood table I used as a desk-bought last year at a lawn sale offered by some particularly desperate householder about ten miles from here-and studied the gun, and it seemed to me clean and efficient-looking, without rust or obvious injury. The clip, this small sharp metal machine, felt surprisingly heavy. There was a slit up the rear of it, through which could be seen the bases of the eight bullets it contained, each with its little round blind eye. Touch that eye with the firing mechanism of the gun, and the bullet leaps off on its only journey.

Could I just insert clip into gun, point, and pull the trigger? Was there risk involved? Afraid of the unknown, I drove to the nearest bookstore, one of the chains, in a mall, and found a little manual on handguns, and bought it (another expense!). This book suggested I oil various parts, and so I did, with Three-in-One oil. The book suggested I try dry-firing the gun-pull the trigger without the clip or any bullets in place-and I did, and the click sounded authoritative and efficient. It seemed that I did have a weapon.

The book also suggested that fifty-year-old bullets might not be entirely trustworthy, and told me how to empty and reload the clip, so I went to a sporting goods store across the state line in Massachusetts and with no trouble at all bought a little heavy box of 9-millimeter bullets and brought them home, where I thumbed eight of them into the clip, pressing each sleek torpedo down against the force of the spring, then sliding the clip up into the open butt of the gun: click.

Fifty years this tool had lain in darkness, under brown wool, wrapped in a French pillowcase, waiting for its moment. Its moment is now.

I practiced with the Luger, driving away from home one sunny midweek day last month, April, driving thirty-some miles westward, across the state line into New York, until I found a deserted field next to a minor winding two-lane blacktop road. Hilly woods stretched upward, dark and tangled, beyond the field. There I parked the car on the weedy verge and walked out across the field with the gun a heavy weight in the inside pocket of my windbreaker.

When I was very close to the trees, I looked back and saw no one driving past on the road. So I took out the Luger and pointed it at a nearby tree and-moving quickly so as not to give myself time to be afraid-I squeezed the trigger the way the little book had told me, and it shot.

What an experience. Not expecting the recoil, or not remembering having read about the recoil, I wasn't prepared for how violently the Luger jumped upward and back, taking my hand with it, so that I almost hit myself in the face with the thing.

On the other hand, the noise wasn't as loud as I'd expected, not a great bang at all, but flatter, like an automobile tire blowout.

I did not, of course, hit the tree I was pointing at, but I did hit the tree next to it, making a tiny puff of dust as though the tree had exhaled. So the second time, now at least knowing the Luger was operational and wouldn't explode on me, I took more careful aim, with the standing stance the book had recommended, knees bent, body angled forward, both hands gripping the gun at arms' length as I sighted down the top of its barrel, and that time I hit exactly the spot on the tree I was aiming at.

Which was nice, but was somewhat spoiled by the fact that my concentration on aiming had made me again pay too little attention to recoil. This time, the Luger jumped out of my hands entirely and fell onto the ground. I retrieved it, wiped it carefully, and decided I had to conquer this matter of recoil if I were going to make use of the damn machine. For instance, what if I ever had to fire twice in a row? Not so good, if the gun is on the ground or, worse, up in my own face.

So once again I took the standing stance, this time aiming at a tree farther off. I clenched the grip of the Luger hard, and when I fired I let the recoil move my arm and then my whole body, so that I never really lost control of the gun. Its power trembled and shivered through my body, like a wave, and made me feel stronger. I liked it.

Of course, I was well aware that in giving all this attention to the physical details, I was not only providing proper weight to the preparation but was also avoiding, for as long as possible, any thought of the actual object of the exercise, the end result of all this groundwork. The death of a man. Though that would be faced soon enough. I knew it then, and I know it now.

Three shots; that was all. I drove back home, and cleaned the Luger, and oiled it again, and replaced the three missing bullets in the clip, and stored gun and clip separately in the bottom drawer of my filing cabinet, and didn't touch them again until I was ready to go out and see if I were actually capable of killing one Herbert Coleman Everly. Then I brought it out and put it into my overnight bag. And the other thing I packed, in addition to the usual clothing and toiletries, was Mr. Everly's resumé.

Herbert C. Everly

835 Churchwarden Lane

Fall City, CT 06198

(203) 240-3677

MAJOR WORK Management

EXPERIENCE Responsible for in-flow of pulp paper from Canadian subsidiary. Coordinated functions of polymer manufacturing arm, Oak Crest Paper Mills, with Laurentian Resources (Can). Maintained delivery schedules for finished product to aerospace, auto, lighting and other industries. Oversaw 82-person manufacturing department, coordinated with 23-person delivery department.

Administration and Personnel

Interviewed and hired for department. Wrote employee analyses, recommended raises and bonuses, counseled employees where necessary.

Industrial

23 years' experience, paper mills, paper products sales, with two corporations.

EDUCATION BBA, Housatonic Business College, 1969

REFERENCE Human Resources Division

Kriegel-Ontario Paper Products

PO Box 9000

Don Mills, Ontario

Canada

There's an entire new occupation these days in our land, a growth industry of "specialists" whose function is to train the freshly unemployed in job-hunting, and specifically how to prepare that all-important resumé, how to put that best foot forward in the increasingly competitive struggle to get a new job, another job, the next job, a job.

HCE has taken such an expert's advice, his resumé reeks of it. For instance, no photo. For those applicants over forty, one popular theory holds that it is best not to include a photo of oneself, in fact not to include anything at all that points specifically to the applicant's age. HCE doesn't even give the years of his employment, limiting himself only to two unavoidable clues: "23 years" and his college graduation in 1969.

Also, HCE is, or at least he wants to appear to be, impersonal and efficient and businesslike. He says nothing of his marital status, or his children, or his outside interests (fishing, bowling, what you will). He limits himself to the issues at hand.

It is not the best resumé I've seen, but it's far from the worst; about middling, I would say. About good enough to get him an interview, if some paper manufacturer should be interested in hiring a manager-level employee with an intense history in the production and sales of specialized polymer paper products. Good enough to get him in the door, I would say. Which is why he must die.

The point in all this is to be absolutely anonymous. Never to be suspected, not for a second. That's why I'm being so very cautious, why in fact I'm driving a good twenty-five miles toward Albany, actually crossing into New York State, before turning south to make my way circuitously back into Connecticut.

Why? Why such extreme care? My gray Plymouth Voyager is not after all particularly noticeable. I'd say it looks rather like one vehicle in five on the road these days. But what if, by some remote chance, some friend of ours, some neighbor of ours, some parent of a schoolmate of Betsy or Bill, happened to see me, this morning, eastbound in Connecticut, when Marjorie has been told I'll be westbound in New York or even airborne by now, toward Pennsylvania? How would I explain it?

Marjorie would think at first I was having an affair. Although-except for that one time eleven years ago that she knows about-I have always been a faithful husband, and she knows that, too. But if she thought I were seeing another woman, if she had any reason to question my movements and my explanations, wouldn't I eventually have to tell her the truth? If only to relieve her mind?

"I was off on a private mission," I would finally have to say, "to kill a man named Herbert Coleman Everly. For us, sweetheart."

But a secret shared is no longer a secret. And in any event, why burden Marjorie with these problems? There's nothing she can do beyond what she's doing, the little household economies she put into place the instant the word came I'd be laid off.

Yes, she did. She didn't even wait for my last day on the job, and she certainly wouldn't have waited until my severance pay was gone.

Continues...


Excerpted from The Ax by Donald E. Westlake Copyright © 1997 by Donald Westlake. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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