Forgotten Books: The Dame by Richard Stark
Don Westlake used to say that he didn't like to outline, that he preferred letting the story take him where it chose to go. I suppose this was another way of saying what Theodore Sturgeon said a long time ago, that if the writer is surprised the reader will be surprised.
Well, Westlake was probably not only surprised by the various twists and turns The Dame takes, he must have been downright shocked in places.
Our old friend Alan Grofield, flush with money from a bank robbery, is intrigued by a message from a Latin American dictator whose friend needs help. Turns out the friend, the forty-something dragon lady Belle Danamato, lives in Puerto Rico and is seeking a divorce from her mobster husband. She is under the impression that he will do her violence rather than actually go through with the settlement their lawyers have come up with. She already has a bodyguard but he's too ugly to be seen with in public. Grofield hates her and her thugs and quickly departs. Only to return a bit later under duress.
All too soon--or not soon enough from Grofield's point of view--Belle Danamato is murdered. B.G. Danamato, mob boss and now widower, appears and decides that Grofield murdered her. He will be quickly tortured and then executed. But lest we forget, Grofield is a professional actor and he puts on enough of a show to plant doubt in Danamato's mind about the identity of the true killer.
For the next several chapters we have a whodunit. B.G. and Grofield interview each of the six guests, trying to see if one of them cracks or inadvertently reveals something he or she shouldn't. It's quite a crew, the most interesting being the brother and sister team Roy and Patricia Chelm. The lad is a gigolo of some kind and the sister an iron virgin of twenty-three.
But don't be misled. Sure we have a one act version of a whodunit but then we go back to some of the finest chase scenes I've read in a long time. Westlake makes the jungles menacing, fetid in heat and humidity and the decay of dead things.
As I read The Dame I thought of all the different genres of popular fiction Westlake touches on in this novel. A partial list would include screwball comedies, chase and adventure, mobsters, country manor whodunits and Agatha Christie clue planting.
One piece of business is, to me at least, unique. Grofield announces about fifteen thousand words before the end that he knows who the killer is but he won't share his surmise with anybody. Westlake uses it as a very nifty tease.
Couple things: I wouldn't say this is major Westlake but it is an example what the pro of pros could do to exalt a story even he wasn't taking too seriously. The writing is astonishingly crisp and vivid. Once a page he jars you with something, some little turn or piece of psychology that only Westlake could have come up with.
The other thing is Grofield himself. I've noticed over the years that every once in awhile Grofield comes off as a jerk. That's my reaction and maybe my reaction alone. He gets a little too full of himself and a little too coy and glib. Then he settles back down and he's an intriguing protagonist again.
I read The Dame in two sittings and enjoyed the super-charged plot and watching Westlake throw one fast ball after another straight across the plate.