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The Ax Mass Market Paperback – May 1, 1998

121 customer reviews

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Editorial Reviews Review

Donald E. Westlake, justly named a Grand Master by the Mystery Writers of America, has written everything from comic capers (the Dortmunder series) to the darker adventures of ace criminal Parker during his long career. But he's never come up with anything scarier or more timely than this story about a downsized executive who decides to kill off the competition. Burke Devore could be your neighbor: a laid-off paper company manager watching his life and family fall apart as he tries desperately to get a job. The plan he finally comes up with involves murdering seven men very much like himself, and Westlake's most impressive achievement is to make the serial killings understandable if in no way justified. Selected titles from Westlake's vast list of books available in paperback include: Baby, Would I Lie?, The Fugitive Pigeon, Pity Him Afterwards, and Trust Me on This. --This text refers to the Hardcover edition.

From Library Journal

Burke Devore, 52, laid off from his middle-management position at a paper mill two years before, decides to eliminate competitors for a dream job at a mill in New York. He places dummy ads in trade journals to attract them, then stalks and kills them (at first with a pistol, later in a variety of disgusting ways?most in broad daylight, with no witnesses). That's about all there is to this strange novel from the author of the John Dortmunder mystery series, e.g., What's the Worst That Could Happen? (LJ 9/15/96). A potentially compelling look at the effects of long-term unemployment on the psyche of a man of limited prospects and intellect, the result is merely a step-by-step guide to executing innocent people, generally lacking in conflict, irony, and farcical elements. Devore's wife and children are sketchy, and humorous situations are underdeveloped. The point of all this is buried deep. Not recommended.?Laurel A. Wilson, Alexandrian P.L., Mount Vernon, Ind.
Copyright 1997 Reed Business Information, Inc. --This text refers to the Hardcover edition.

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Product Details

  • Mass Market Paperback: 352 pages
  • Publisher: Grand Central Publishing (May 1, 1998)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0446606081
  • ISBN-13: 978-0446606080
  • Product Dimensions: 4.2 x 1 x 6.8 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 6.4 ounces
  • Average Customer Review: 4.1 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (121 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #1,112,078 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

More About the Author

I think I'd best treat this as an interrogation, in which I am not certain of the intent or attitude of the interrogator.

I was born Donald Edwin Westlake on July 12th, 1933 in Brooklyn, New York. My mother, Lillian, maiden name Bounds, mother's maiden name Fitzgerald, was all Irish. My father, Albert, his mother's maiden name being Tyrrell, was half Irish. (The English snuck in, as they will.) They were all green, and I was born on Orangeman's Day, which led to my first awareness of comedy as a consumer. I got over the unfortunate element of my birth long before my uncles did.

My mother believed in all superstitions, plus she made some up. One of her beliefs was that people whose initials spelled something would be successful in life. That's why I went through grammar school as Dewdrip. However, my mother forgot Confirmation, when the obedient Catholic is burdened with yet another name. So she stuck Edmond in there, and told me that E was behind the E of Edwin, so I wasn't DEEW, I was DEW. Perhaps it helped.

I attended three colleges, all in New York State, none to much effect. Interposed amid this schooling was two and a half years in the United States Air Force, during which I also learned very little, except a few words in German. I was a sophomore in three colleges, finally made junior in Harpur College in Binghamton, NY, and left academe forever. However, I was eventually contacted by SUNY Binghamton, the big university that Harpur College had grown up to become. It was their theory that their ex-students who did not graduate were at times interesting, and worthy to be claimed as alumni. Among those she mentioned were cartoonist Art Spiegelman and dancer Bill T. Jones, a grandfaloon I was very happy to join, which I did when SUNY Binghamton gave me a doctorate in letters in June 1996. As a doctor, I accept no co-pay.

I have one sister, one wife and two ex-wives. (You can't have ex-sisters, but that's all right, I'm pleased with the one I have.) The sister was named by my mother Virginia, but my mother had doped out the question of Confirmation by then--Virigina's two and half years younger than me, still--and didn't give her a middle name. Her Confirmation name was Olga, the only thing my mother could find that would make VOW. The usual mother-daughter dynamic being in play, my sister immediately went out and married a man whose name started with B.

My wife, severally Abigail Westlake, Abby Adams Westlake and Abby Adams, which makes her three wives right there, is a writer, of non-fiction, frequently gardening, sometimes family history. Her two published books are An Uncommon Scold and The Gardener's Gripe Book.

Seven children lay parental claims on us. They have all reached drinking age, so they're on their own.

Having been born in Brooklyn, I was raised first in Yonkers and then in Albany, schooled in Plattsburgh and Troy and Binghamton, and at last found Manhattan. (At least I was looking in the right state.) Abby was born in Manhattan, which makes it easier. We retain a rope looped over a butt there, but for the last decade have spent most of our time on an ex-farm upstate. It is near nothing, which is the point. Our nearest neighbor on two sides is Coach Farm, producer of a fine goat cheese I've eaten as far away as San Francisco. They have 750 goats up there on their side of the hill. More importantly, they have put 770 acres abutting our land into the State Land Conservancy, so it cannot be built on. I recommend everybody have Miles and Lillian Cann and Coach Farm as their neighbors.

I knew I was a writer when I was eleven; it took the rest of the world about ten years to begin to agree. Up till then, my audience was mainly limited to my father, who was encouraging and helpful, and ultimately influential in an important way.

Neophyte writers are always told, "write what you know," but the fact is, kids don't know anything. A beginning writer doesn't write what he knows, he writes what he read in books or saw in movies. And that's the way it was with me. I wrote gangster stories, I wrote stories about cowboys, I wrote poems about prospecting-in Alaska, so I could rhyme with "cold"-I wrote the first chapters of all kinds of novels. The short stories I mailed off to magazines, and they mailed them back in the self-addressed, stamped envelopes I had provided. And in the middle of it all, my father asked me a question which, probably more than any other single thing, decided what kind of writer I was going to be.

I was about fourteen. I'd written a science-fiction about aliens from another planet who come to Earth and hire a husband-wife team of big-game hunters to help them collect examples of every animal on Earth for their zoo back on Alpha Centauri or wherever. At the end of the story, they kidnap the hero and heroine and take them away in the spaceship because they want examples of every animal on Earth.

Now, this was a perfectly usable story. It has been written and published dozens of times, frequently with Noah's Ark somewhere in the title, and my version was simply that story again, done with my sentences. I probably even thought I'd made it up.

So I showed it to my father. He read it and said one or two nice things about the dialogue or whatever, and then he said, "why did you write this story?"

I didn't know what he meant. The true answer was that science-fiction magazines published that story with gonglike regularity and I wanted a story published somewhere. This truth was so implicit I didn't even have words to describe it, and therefore there was no way to understand the question.

So he asked it a different way: "What's the story about?" Well, it's about these people that get taken to be in a zoo on Alpha Centauri. "No, what's it about?" he said. "The old fairy tales that you read when you were a little boy, they all had a moral at the end. If you put a moral at the end of this story, what would it be?"

I didn't know. I didn't know what the moral was. I didn't know what the story was about.

The truth was, of course, that the story wasn't about anything. It was a very modest little trick, like a connect-the-dots thing on a restaurant place mat. There's nothing particularly wrong with connect-the-dots things, and there's nothing particularly wrong with this constructivist kind of writing, a little story or a great big fat novel with nothing and nobody in it except this machine that turns over and at the end this jack-in-the-box pops out. There's nothing wrong with that.

But it isn't what I thought I wanted to be. So that question of my father's wriggled right down into my brain like a worm, and for quite a while it took the fun out of things. I'd be sitting there writing a story about mobsters having a shootout in a nightclub office-straight out of some recent movie-and the worm would whisper: Why are you writing this story?

Naturally, I didn't want to listen, but I had no real choice in the matter. The question kept coming, and I had to try to figure out some way to answer it, and so, slowly and gradually, I began to find out what I was doing. And ultimately I refined the question itself down to this: What does this story mean to me that I should spend my valuable time creating it?

And that's how I began to become a writer.

- Ancram, NY (2001)

Customer Reviews

Most Helpful Customer Reviews

18 of 18 people found the following review helpful By Sean Kelly on April 5, 2000
Format: Mass Market Paperback
Westlake's ingenious plot of a downsized executive's attempts to reenter the industry is underscored with the macabre. The protagonist, Burke Devore, makes a dalliance with death, as he literally kills of the competition for a position in industrial paper sales.
Westlake's novel couldn't be more disturbingly apropos, with hundreds of organizations laying off thousands of workers. His everyman protagonist struggles to find a job, but realizes, after collecting his competitors' resumes through a bogus help-wanted ad, that he doesn't have what it takes professionally. The reader can't help but be moved by his strife, and that's when the twist comes in. Devore decides to kill the top seven competitors, and he has all he needs: names and home addresses from the resumes.
Westlake maintains the everyman in Devore as he becomes a murderer. His character is sickened by the first killing, but gains confidence with each murder. Occasional comic mishaps and brushes with law enforcement caused me to turn each page with giddy anticipation, both anxious and afraid to see if Devore would succeed or be caught.
Westlake's writing is direct and clear, and his ending dovetails nicely with the rest of the novel. It's a short one, yet enjoyable, even if you're not into dark comedy.
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11 of 12 people found the following review helpful By lawyeraau HALL OF FAMETOP 500 REVIEWERVINE VOICE on August 4, 2001
Format: Mass Market Paperback Verified Purchase
What do you do when you are over fifty years old, and the company for which you have worked for nearly a quarter of a century is downsizing and gives you the ax? One would think that you would simply get another job. Wrong! In this era of corporate downsizing and fierce competition, that may be easier said than done. Ask Burke Devore.
Burke Devore, unemployed now for nearly two years, would like nothing better than to get a job commensurate with his experience as a product manager for a paper mill corporation, but as I said, competition is fierce. Desperate in his quest for the american dream that seems to have turned into a nightmare from which he cannot wake, his middle class life is spiraling out of control. He must regain control by whatever means necessary. Burke Devore, thinking out of the box, simply decides to eliminate the competition...literally. Our erstwhile serial killer is mad as hell, and he isn't going to take it anymore.
This darkly satirical and provocative novel is a veritable page turner. Moreover, there is an underlying social commentary that permeates the plot, which serves to make the reader complicit with the protagonist, as he moves forward with his deadly agenda. Well written and original in concept, it makes for a book well worth reading, especially by those who enjoy mysteries and novels of suspense.
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7 of 7 people found the following review helpful By Untouchable on August 20, 2001
Format: Mass Market Paperback
When Burke Devore loses his job, he finds it difficult for a 50-year-old to get another in the competitive market out there. He needs a job in his line of expertise, but realises that there are many people in his same predicament. His solution is to narrow the odds in his favour by eliminating the competition, literally. He places an ad in a trade magazine in order to collect resumes of people in a similar situation to him. Then, anyone he decides has better qualifications than his is marked for elimination.
This chilling story describes the desperation that drives an apparently normal middle-aged man with a wife and grown children to embark on a killing spree. We're taken along for the ride as he tries to justify to himself the need for these murders to take place, his agony of guilt after each one, but then, frighteningly, his ability to overcome the guilt before planning the next one. Indeed, he begins to pride himself on picking up a new skill! As Burke goes from one victim to another, he depersonalises what he is doing by using his victim's initials when referring to them rather than their names.
Although this is fiction, it seems an altogether likely scenario of the thought patterns of the real-life serial killers, and the unbelievable justifications for their murders. This is a frightening story in the absolute cold-bloodedness of the murders by a man who, in all outward appearances, comes across as a very gentle man.
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5 of 5 people found the following review helpful By George Dellagiarino on October 5, 2000
Format: Mass Market Paperback
Donald Westlake writes straight from the heart. Only "the Ax" is from the darker rivers of the heart. Anyone who has ever been "downsized" or stood on an unemployment line can relate to the feelings of one Burke Devore, a downsized project manager at a paper mill plant, who, by placing a phony ad in a trade journal, acquires all the resumes of those potential competitors who might apply for the same job as him. He simply "eliminates the competition". We might all think about it in our darker fantasies, but Burke goes ahead and does it.
I read this book because it was constantly referenced in the reviews of another Westlake book ("The Hook"). Both books have similarities and differences that abound. The secondary charcters are stronger in "The Hook" than here. We really don't dwell all that much on Burke's wife and even less so on his kids. Yet, like in "The Hook", there is a sense of desperation on the part of the main characters. In both cases, the action is fast paced and we find ourselves hungrily turning the pages.
So, why not 5 stars? A couple of reasons: When Burke's son is brought up on charges of breaking into a software store and the police search his house, they come across the resumes he has collected. The police are already investigating a few of the deaths by this time, yet they fail to make the connection. I wanted to shake Detective Burton because he can't seem to put 2+2 together. He ends up, like the detective in "The Hook", as being almost a wasted character. Some of the murders committed by Burke are committed in a public venue, especially the first one where he shoots a man at his own mailbox and one of the later ones where a person is bludegeoned to death in a parking lot.
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