One of my favorite characters in all of hardboiled crime is a thief named Alan Grofield, the protagonist of Lemons Never Lie. I picked the novel up last month at a used bookstore in Anchorage, Alaska, and was captivated by the first line: "Alan Grofield put a nickel in the slot machine, pulled the lever, and watched a lemon, a lemon, and a lemon come up."
The book was written by "Richard Stark," a pseudonym used by Donald Westlake. Although the novel was originally published in 1971, it was reissued in 2006 by Hard Case Crime, an imprint that specializes in paperback originals and reprints. Each book has a lurid cover reminiscent of the golden age of paperback originals.
Donald Westlake, who died in 2008, was born in 1933 and struggled for many years as a short-story writer before becoming a prolific writer of short novels in many genres, mostly crime, though he did pen a few dozen soft-porn titles. During the course of his career, he wrote more than 100 books, using at least 15 different pen names.
Westlake had a knack for writing tight plots, believable characters and fresh dialog—qualities valuable in any genre but particularly useful in crime novels that rely on plot-driven story mechanics and characters who are tight with their words and seldom make their true intentions known.
"They all crowded close and Tebelman counted the money by the light of the pencil flash. It came out to fifty-seven thousand three hundred dollars. 'That isn't bad,' Grofield said. Nobody disagreed."
Westlake also had a sharp sense of humor, which he deployed in his stories to great effect. Novels written in his own name, especially those that feature a career criminal named John Dortmunder, feature hare-brained capers in which hijinks always ensue.
Westlake, however, is best known for the stories he wrote under the Stark pseudonym. These novels also feature a career criminal, but unlike Dortmunder, Parker is a humorless, no-nonsense professional who commits himself to the job 100 percent, and woe to those who even think about double-crossing him.
Westlake, aka Stark, wrote more than a dozen Parker novels, and many have been made into movies, some more than once. Peter Coyote, Robert Duvall, Mel Gibson and Jason Statham have all taken a turn as Parker, but none holds a candle to the actor who first portrayed Parker: Lee Marvin.
Marvin's portrayal of Parker in In Point Blank! as a brooding, relentless thief who seeks to recover what's been taken from him, gave rise to a new kind of anti-hero: the killer with a code who'll stop at nothing to claim what he's owed.
Marvin's performance inspired generations of influential filmmakers. The well-dressed thieves in Reservoir Dogs are all clones of Marvin's throwback tough guy. In fact, Quentin Tarantino's debut operates as a referendum on what constitutes "professional" behavior among thieves, a code Stark explores in all of his books.
Parker was the perfect protagonist for Stark's tightly plotted stories, and he used the same formula again and again. The job is usually an unorthodox heist where there will be lots of cash on hand. Parker is always the most serious, the most humorless and the most professional thief in the crew. Nevertheless, something always goes wrong, much to his exasperation.
To break up the monotony, Stark invented colorful criminals for Parker to partner with. Enter Grofield, who appears in several Parker capers and four novels in which he's the main character.
Grofield's a thief, but he's also an actor, and, like Parker, he's a throwback. He doesn't appear in commercials or TV shows, which would have serious repercussions on his criminal career. He's good with people and is able to defuse potentially violent confrontations; in other words, he's the anti-Parker, yet a professional through and through.
In Lemons Never Lie, Grofield's been summoned for a job, but a jackpot of lemons serves as an omen that things are about to go sour. The planner is a psychopath who doesn't take kindly to Grofield's refusal and sets in action a series of events that push Grofield to be more like Parker.
"He didn't understand. They'd come here, Myers and Brock. They'd killed Dan Leach. They'd forced Mary to tell them where Dan Leach was and what name he was using. What else?
She saw his face change when he realized what else."
The true professional here is Westlake. No matter what name he used, he was a writer of dazzling economy and generous wit who trusted his readers would know who was on the level and who wasn't, no matter how deadly things got.