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Last Updated on May 10, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1945

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.

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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 observes to himself that they should have been friends, not enemies. Burke returns to his motel room to wait for his victim’s shift to end, but EBD leaves a few minutes early, upsetting the plan. Unable to use the Luger, Burke follows his victim and runs him down with his Plymouth Voyager minivan. Returning to his motel room, Burke is overwhelmed by horror at the circumstances of this murder. After a sleepless, tearful night, he determines to turn himself in and writes a remorseful confession before falling asleep.

In the morning, Burke feels less guilty about the murder. He takes the confession with him to burn later, and after inspecting the damage to the Voyager, he manages to have a traffic accident on the way home that will explain the condition of the vehicle.

Burke is driven by the conviction that he must conclude his killings and secure Fallon’s job before a new crop of contenders springs up to challenge him for the position. He begins to consider murder as the solution to other people’s problems as well. While at the auto shop, getting an estimate on fixing the Voyager, he finds out that his mechanic’s wife has lost her job because of cutbacks and that the mechanic himself fears the same will happen to him. Burke thinks to himself that if only they would kill their colleagues, their jobs would be assured, but he reminds himself, “that’s not a thing you could say to anybody.”

Burke’s evasiveness and single-minded dedication to completing his task estrange him further from his wife, Marjorie, than did his depression over his unemployment. Marjorie confronts him and demands that they both go to counseling to save their marriage. Burke is caught off guard, and when Marjorie admits to having an affair, his first thought is to find out who the man is and kill him. Burke then mentally assigns Marjorie’s unknown lover to the queue of victims: “I’ll get to him later. I have to finish the other first.” Burke agrees to go to counseling, though he sees it only as another task he must perform to save his old life.

Burke becomes immune to the horror of his deeds, even while he insists to himself that he is not a killer. He fears that the murders will change him, but he convinces himself that if he finishes them quickly, he can return to normal.

When his fifth target, KBA, does not leave his wife’s side, however, an annoyed Burke determines to kill them both the following day if they do not separate. He has forgotten the horror he felt at killing an “innocent” victim, the wife of his second target. KBA does leave his wife behind when he goes for supplies at a local nursery, and Burke follows him there, confronting him in the parking lot and shooting him.

Shortly after this murder, three weeks into his killing spree, Burke feels confident. He thinks of being halfway through his list, as if the murders were nothing more than a weekend “to do” list. A late-night call from the police adds another complication. His son, Billy, has been arrested along with another teenage boy for burglarizing a computer store. In an ironic parallel to the benefits of “retraining,” Burke finds that the skills he has learned while committing the murders and his new frame of mind allow him to outfox the police, who are trying to pin a series of burglaries on his son. Burke blames himself for Billy’s theft because he could not provide what Billy needed. In an extension of his own situation, Burke decides that Billy “wasn’t wrong to do what he did, he was right.” He reasons that Billy needs these things “if he’s going to make it in the new world coming.” Burke’s newfound mistrust of society and his skillful elimination of stolen software from Billy’s room earn his son’s gratitude and the respect of his wife. Burke has proven himself capable in a family crisis, ironically bringing his family closer together. He realizes that in his old life, he would have trusted the police, and his son would have gone to jail. Marjorie is so impressed by Burke that she ends her affair.

In their counseling sessions, Burke learns things about himself and his wife that he never realized before, leading to a greater understanding and a renewed determination to save his lifestyle and his family.

Burke stalks his next victim, GRB, unsuccessfully. After breaking into the man’s home and almost being caught by his wife as she returns from a walk, Burke calls the house. He is relieved to learn that the man has taken a job in another field and thus will not need to be eliminated.

With only two competitors remaining, Burke hits another snag that threatens his entire plan. Detective Burton of the state CID visits Burke’s home, having cleverly linked the first and fourth murders through the victims’ backgrounds and ballistic tests. Although Burke manages to pose as a frightened potential victim, he realizes that he can no longer use the Luger. His capacity for improvisation has grown, and he manages to commit two more ghastly murders. He has developed such nerve that he actually stores one body overnight in his own garage before disposing of it.

Having taken great pains to send out his resume shortly before he kills Fallon, Burke seems to be the top candidate for the job. With the disappearance of victim number six, Detective Burton formulates a theory that blames the missing man and completely overlooks Burke. As the novel ends, Burke is looking forward to his new job and the return to his old life. This is one of the most chilling images in the novel.

Westlake provides a convincing portrait of a man crossing the line between normalcy and sociopathy, between mundane life and madness. The first-person narrative voice allows the reader to follow Burke’s endless rants against his situation and rationalizations for his actions. His episodes of remorse seem genuine, as does his subsequent determination to continue. It is hard to imagine what life will be like for Burke Devore in the future, for he has changed profoundly. Readers of this book may never sit waiting for a job interview without wondering how far the other applicants will go to get it.

Sources for Further Study

Accountancy. CXX, October, 1997, p. 46.

Booklist. XCIII, April 15, 1997, p. 1408.

Business Week. August 18, 1997, p. 16E10.

Library Journal. CXXII, May 1, 1997, p. 142.

The New York Times Book Review. CII, June 29, 1997, p. 17.

People Weekly. July 14, 1997, p. 29.

Publishers Weekly. CCXLIV, April 21, 1997, p. 64.

USA Today. August 18, 1997, p. B6.

The Washington Post. July 31, 1997, p B01.

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