Friday, March 16, 2012

Alan Grofield takes the stage

It’s been a good spring for fans of Donald Westlake. First, Hard Case Crime published a never-before-seen Westlake novel, The Comedy Is Finished, which I wrote about a couple of weeks back. And now my own employer, the University of Chicago Press, has released the four novels that Westlake wrote about Parker’s sometime-partner Alan Grofield. We’ve put out three in paperback—The Damsel, The Dame, and The Blackbird—and one, Lemons Never Lie, will soon be available as an e-book only (since you can get the paperback from Hard Case Crime).

No fan of Parker or Stark would pretend that these four books are as good as the best of Parker, but that’s a tall order—they’re plenty good and well worth reading in their own right. What’s most fun about them is Grofield himself: ladies’ man, actor, wit, and, equally important, fully capable heister. As Sarah Weinman writes in her introduction to the series,
Grofield was a lab rat for Westlake, who liked to experiment with tone—veering, somewhat wildly, between dark violence, witty banter, and absurdist humor—and plot.
In these books, Grofield finds himself in romantic adventures, locked room mysteries, espionage plots, and straight-up heists—and, always the actor, he casts himself as the heroic leading man in each.

The opening paragraph of The Damsel (1967) is the first indication that things in Grofield's world are different than in Parker’s. Whereas the best-known Parker opening line, from Firebreak, is “When the phone rang, Parker was in the garage, killing a man,” Grofield’s book opens with the girl:
Grofield opened his right eye, and there was a girl climbing in the window. He closed that eye, opened the left, and she was still there.
She brings trouble, of course, but in the life of a faithless Romeo like Grofield, what lady doesn’t?

The window is in Grofield’s hotel room in Mexico City, where he’s recovering after nearly being killed in The Handle. He’s still a bit punchy, which gives the humor in this exchange, from later in the first chapter, an entertainingly absurd edge:
She said, “Are you one of them?”

“That depends. Sometimes I’m one of them and other times it doesn’t seem worth the effort. I haven’t been one of them lately because I haven’t been well.”

The glitter was slowly fading from her eyes. In a more human voice she said, “What are you talking about?”

“Be damned if I know. Are we supposed to be talking about something?” He tried to sit up, but the wound in his back gave him a twinge. He grimaced and shook his head. “It gets worse,” he said. “Before it gets better, it gets worse.”
Moments later, still completely confused, the visitor decides Grofield’s no danger:
“I’ll trust you,” she said, taking another step closer to the bed. “God knows, I have to trust somebody.”

“You wouldn’t talk like that if I had full use of my faculties.”
As the girl will soon learn, Grofield’s both right and wrong: he’s not the sort of man her mother would trust, for example, but he can definitely be counted on to get her out of a jam. And any damsel (or reader) in distress will find him great company along the way


  1. Whenever I read Grofield's dialogue, I always hear Alan Alda's voice speaking it. He was actually a very consistent character, even though the types of stories he figured in varied a bit.

    Westlake never did tell us what happened to him.

  2. As much as I love Parker, I have to admit, I could never take Grofield as anything but a supporting player.

    Brian January