Saturday, September 12, 2009

Lemons Never Lie by Richard Stark (Hard Case Crime)

Since September 2009 marks the fifth anniversary of Hard Case Crime, I will be reprinting my reviews of the first 40 books from my old (and now mostly defunct) Craig's Book Club site — 2 for the first 10 days, and 1 a day for the next 20. I hope you enjoy this refresher course in the variety of crime fiction that this fascinating publisher has to offer.

Sometime thief and full-time actor / theatre owner Alan Grofield has just entered Las Vegas to hear a robbery pitch from a man he only knows through another colleague, but he's already not feeling good about it. This is because, to "pay his dues" to the city, he always plays one slot going in and one going out, and he never wins. He just got three lemons, and "You know what they say about lemons": Lemons Never Lie.

Author Richard Stark is best known for his series of novels featuring Parker, a professional thief. Lemons Never Lie, however, features Parker's less-well-known colleague, Alan Grofield, the star of three other novels in his own right: The Damsel, The Dame, and The Blackbird.

Stark is also the darker alter-ego of acclaimed author Donald E. Westlake (it's no coincidence that Stephen King chose "Richard" Bachman as his own pseudonym and George "Stark" for Bachman's fictional counterpart in The Dark Half), and their respective books differ in tone. Where Westlake's work is usually in a lighter vein (like my personal favorite God Save the Mark), Stark delves deeper into the seamy underside of society. And where Westlake injects his prose with a lot of personality, Stark's is ... well, starker.

Oddly enough, this last (so far) Grofield novel actually feels more like a Westlake in its tone and style but with Stark's worldview (the connection to Parker almost requires the use of the Stark credit to avoid confusion), and Westlake's first Hard Case Crime appearance, 361, feels more like Stark than the usual Westlake production. First published in 1962, the same year Stark first appeared, 361 just may have been the novel that brought the author's dual nature to his own attention.

(Stark and Westlake eventually crossed paths in Jimmy the Kid, where Westlake's series thief, Dortmunder, attempts to replicate a heist pulled off by Parker in an otherwise nonexistent Stark novel called Child Heist.)

In Andrew Myers, Stark has created a highly memorable villain for Lemons Never Lie. Myers is the guy whose pitch Grofield has come to Vegas to hear. He has an idea for a job that he needs some good people on, but Grofield, like most thieves, has his own moral code. Myers' plan to steal a brewery's payroll (one of the few still paid in cash) automatically includes killing, which makes Grofield uncomfortable (not the killing itself, but its lack of necessity), so he walks out. This results in everyone else eventually walking out, which really irks Myers, who immediately takes revenge. Grofield is not a man who can be taken down easily ... but Myers just won't quit, and he doesn't appear to have any limits to what he'll do.

Stark is different than most authors I've read in that he seems to put his characters in the most difficult position possible, given the options available, and then challenges himself (and them) to see if they can get out of it. Several times in Lemons Never Lie, I was in awe of the choices he made with Grofield, always making his current situation unnecessarily trying. But, as conflict is the reason for all stories, it only makes the novel more entertaining. As do the little humorous touches the author peppers in between the crimes committed. Like how Grofield, when he wants a book to read, steals one from the local library (a biography of David Garrick, no less — what a trouper!).

As a sometime actor myself, I had to admire Grofield. After all, he's a purist: he believes "live performances before live audiences" to be the only true medium for an actor and scoffs at film and television work: "Movies and television were for mannequins, not actors. An actor who stepped before a camera was in the process of rotting his own talent." I especially appreciated the insight into the community-theatre business. Grofield is, after all, only a thief to support his true love of treading the boards. The day-to-day preparations for a summer opening made for a nice contrast to all the mayhem.

I only wish the ending weren't such a lemon. After 220 pages of investment, the reader deserves more than Grofield literally riding off into the sunset.

No comments:

Related Posts with Thumbnails