Donald E. Westlake is a prolific writer who publishes novels and stories under his own name as well as pseudonyms, one of which is Richard Stark. (In an explicit tribute to Westlake, Stephen King, in his novel The Dark Half (1989), named his protagonist’s vicious alter ego “George Stark.”) Westlake also wrote screenplays for the popular films The Grifters (1990) and The Stepfather (1987). He is credited with inventing the comic caper, or humorous crime story. Westlake is, however, capable of a darker kind of tale, and The Ax is among his darkest yet.
Westlake presents his readers with a difficult character in Burke Devore. As the novel opens, Burke sets out to commit his first murder in a plan designed to eliminate—literally—the competition for a job. Certainly not of heroic proportions, Burke is an everyman who for twenty-five years lived a normal, even prosaic, middle-class life with his wife and two children. He believed that his life would continue unchanged until death or retirement ended his career as a middle manager for a paper products company in Connecticut. Corporate downsizing struck, however, and the paper company relocated its plant and jobs to Canada, leaving Burke unemployed. Desperate after one year, realizing that the generous severance pay and resume-writing workshops are not enough and that he is not, after all, a first choice for potential employers, Burke sets a plan into motion.
Though not concerning murder at first, Burke’s actions are not innocent. He has subscribed to the two professional journals formerly provided by his employer, so as not to get left behind in the industry, and he is curious about his competition for the few jobs advertised. Keeping his actions secret from his wife, he takes out an ad in one of the journals, offering his perfect job. He rents a post office box in another town and produces fake stationery on the computer bought for his son, Billy, so that the teenager would not get behind in his skills. Burke is aware of his deceit in placing the ad, but he justifies it, and his subsequent actions, as fulfilling his responsibility to his family. At first depressed by the resumes sent to his post office box, Burke decides that the only way to get his old life back is to kill his competitors.
He already has found his ideal job. After reading an interview with a manager of a paper mill in New York State, Burke decides that this man, Upton Ralph Fallon, has his job, and that he deserves it more than Fallon does. He determines to first wipe out the competition, then kill Fallon. As the only truly qualified candidate left, Burke is sure that he will replace Fallon as the new manager.
Methodical and careful in his plans, Burke practices with his late father’s war souvenir, an old Luger pistol that Burke knows is unregistered and untraceable. He excuses his absences to his wife by claiming he must travel to various job interviews. Continually justifying his actions, he fails to notice the madness of his plans. After all, he reasons, he is merely acting out his role as head of his family, ensuring their survival. He even fancies that the killings would be in “self defense”—of his life, his family, and everything that he holds dear. He does not wish to kill these men, but what does society expect him to do, when it allows the greed of stockholders and the callousness of CEOs to dismiss honest, hardworking middle- class men? Even while remembering a job counselor’s admonition that no company owes him anything, Burke feels that he has a right to his comfortable middle-class existence and that he is only following current social mores by taking his murderous path. Westlake uses Burke’s rationalizations to create a scathing portrait of corporate practices in the 1990’s.
Each murder begins with the resume of the potential victim. To distance himself and dehumanize his victims, Burke refers to the men by their initials. The first murder, of HCE, goes according to plan, with a clean shot and no witnesses, and Burke feels confident that he can commit all the murders. While murdering his second victim, EGR, however, he is forced to murder EGR’s wife as well when she mistakes him for the middle-aged lover of their teenage daughter. Shaken and remorseful, Burke is not sure that he can go on with his plan. After the police arrest the lover of his victims’ daughter and the suspect hangs himself in his jail cell, however, Burke knows that he has gotten away with those two murders. He sets out after his third rival.
The fourth murder turns out to be even worse than the last experience. Burke follows EBD to the diner where his victim works a night shift and inadvertently engages him in conversation. Finding that he actually likes the man, Burke...
(The entire section is 1945 words.)