We've been deluged in recent years by books and movies about serial killers that make various attempts to explain their horrific crimes. The causes often lie on terrible childhood abuse. But what if someone committed a series of murders because he was desperate for a job?
That's right, Burke Devore in Donald Westlake's chilling and suspenseful new novel becomes a killer because he's out of a job. A middle manager for years at a paper mill, he's been downsized, and as his insurance and unemployment run out, he and his family sink into increasing fear and despair. His wife works two lousy part-time jobs, his son takes to burglary and is arrested. And Burton just can't get hired in his field.
It wasn't supposed to be like that. After all, as he puts it so trenchantly, he's middle class, and so, unlike the poor or the very rich, isn't used "to the idea that life has great swings" of fortune. Instead, "the middle class is used to a smooth progress through life." If you give up the highs, you're supposed to be protected from the lows.
Like your company dumping you after years of loyal and productive service--and then offering to retrain you as an air conditioning repairman. Now, who'd bother hiring a man over 50 with a few months of training over someone younger who really wanted to do that job?
Fully aware of the surplus of middle managers in his own field, and with more of them "chasing fewer and fewer jobs," Devore craftily finds out who his toughest competition is. And after narrowing the list down to those in his New England region or New York, sets out to kill each one so that the next time a plum job comes up in his area, he'll go to the top of the list.
It's an audacious, brutal, and crazy scheme, and Westlake's great gift is drawing you into the domestic and professional tragedy of Devore's life so well that you become weirdly complicit in his quiet rage. You don't want Devore to kill anyone, yet you don't want him to get caught by the police. This disturbing tension propels the book forward over the few gaps. While Devore's relationship with his wife is fully realized, his connection with his two children is less so. And in the brief moments when the tension lets up in this harrowing novel, you may wonder a little about Devore's past.
Downsizing, as Devore points out, has to be one of the stupidest business ideas in this century: "trashing productive people from productive careers in productive companies." Taut and creepy, THE AX brings newspaper headlines about downsizing to life in a way only as richly experienced a writer as Donald Westlake can do. It's no surprise, then, that in 1993, the Mystery Writers of America named this author of 40 books a Grand Master.