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Corporate Downsizing: It's Murder

By Blaine Harden
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, July 31, 1997; Page B01
The Washington Post

If you were "downsized" after decades of loyal service to a company, what would be the most productive way to channel your feelings of betrayal?

Here's a thought:

Find Dad's old World War II German Luger, oil it up, take some target practice and bump off the five most qualified competitors for the specialized middle-management job that you know best. Let's say the first murder goes wonderfully well: Your victim walks outside to check the mail. Baam! A point-blank shot into his left eye. But complications quickly arise. To get at No. 2, you have to shoot his nettlesome spouse. To find No. 3, you must track him to a garden-supply shop and shoot him twice in the face while he's loading up on peat moss. Then, to elude police, you improvise alternative methods of killing, running over No. 4 with a Plymouth Voyager and bashing the skull of No. 5 with a hammer. Finally, you eliminate the man who actually has the job you want, asphyxiating him with duct tape.

Along the way, you become so comfortable with murder as a solution to life's puzzlements that you give serious thought to shooting your wife's lover, as well as that annoying elderly lady who takes too long backing her car out of a parking space at the shopping center. But, of course, you do no such thing. You are not crazy. You are channeling your anger in a productive way.

Donald E. Westlake, the mystery writer who cooked up this job search recipe and neatly lays it out in his new novel, "The Ax," was in New York the other day, talking about murder and productivity in modern America.

He was sitting in a nearly empty restaurant on the Upper East Side shortly before the lunch hour when this question came up: "Is that your definition of murder, then, channeling anger in a productive way?"

The question made Westlake laugh. It was a childlike laugh -- light, lilting, almost helpless with mirth. And it was spooky. "The Ax" isn't an especially funny book. It is, as reviewers have said, "savage," "relentless," "excruciatingly brilliant." It seduces readers into cheering the snuffing out of innocent middle-aged men. It makes a plausible case that murder is a rational response to CEOs who fire legions of loyal employees to perk up stock prices. It spindles one's sense of right and wrong.

So what's with the laughter?

Westlake, a gangly, loose-limbed man of 64, with great tufted eyebrows and a bald head fringed in white, usually writes comic capers. Robbery, burglary and murder are almost always good, clean fun in the more than 40 novels he has written under his own name and assorted pseudonyms. He's been described in the New York Times as the "Neil Simon of the crime novel." Critics give Westlake credit for having invented and sustained his own comic genre, one that melds slapstick and one-liners with the conventions of the hard-boiled mystery. His elegant body of fiction has won him the Grandmaster Award of the Mystery Writers of America. So prolific is Westlake that his publishers have warned him not to publish so many titles under his own name. Still, he knocks out three or four books a year.

After a good long while, the author stops laughing.

He says he definitely is not recommending murder, although he adds, parenthetically, that he just received a fan letter from an unemployed middle manager in Connecticut who wrote that "having read your book I cannot believe the thought of murder never occurred to me."

"Try to find another way," Westlake says, advising readers out there who may be inspired by his prose. "But remember that, in truth, all bets are off. What I say in the book is that the moral code of our times is that the end justifies the means. I think that is true. That is what every issue of every newspaper is telling us."

Down in Greenwich Village, a mystery bookshop called Partners & Crime has put "The Ax" in a display window next to a New York Post clipping about corporate layoffs. The news story is about International Paper's recent announcement that it will reduce its work force by 9,000 jobs. Word of the mass layoffs delighted Wall Street, making the company's stock soar. (And helped Westlake move some books. "The Ax" was the best-selling hardback at Partners & Crime in June, and it's started popping up on some regional bestseller lists.)

It turns out that "The Ax's" protagonist, Burke Devore, was laid off from a paper company. Devore coolly notes: "If I were still at Halcyon Mills . . . I wouldn't be killing people."

In the comedic books that Westlake is most practiced at writing, he says that his social criticism is "broader, but shallower. You pull a lot of the sting."

Nothing blunts the sting of "The Ax." In explaining why, he points out that the book is dedicated to his father, Albert Joseph Westlake (1896-1953), a man who knew from downsizing.

"All the time I was growing up, he was marginal and white-collar, a bookkeeper, a clerk with New York State," Westlake says. "Growing up in Albany, we knew people who were frankly poor. If you are frankly poor, then, well, that's it. If you are poor white-collar, it is pretending. It is putting on a good front and there is stress all the time."

When Westlake began reading newspaper stories about corporate downsizing a couple of years ago, he thought, "This is exactly what my parents' lives were like." But Westlake saw a sinister distinction between what his father went through in the 1930s and what downsized middle managers are being forced to endure at the end of the century.

"The difference being everybody went through the Depression together. So it was like boot camp for everybody. Where now, the people who this is happening to are isolated," says Westlake, noting that downsizing grinds on even as the economy booms, unemployment falls and the stock market soars.

Before he becomes an unemployed murderer, the hero of "The Ax" is told by Halcyon Mills that his job has "ceased to go forward." This euphemism "snagged my eye," Westlake says, because it was the one AT&T coined when it got rid of thousands of mid-level employees.

"Somehow that was supposed to be a softening phrase. But it isn't. It is a chilling phrase," he says. "Because if you think about it, your job is not going forward, but from your peripheral vision you can see other jobs that are going forward. So it is like death, a description of death." The slow-motion death that guys in their fifties like Burke Devore are forced to endure occurs in handsome houses in rural Connecticut and Upstate New York and western Massachusetts, as bills stack up, as marital pressures mount, as dozens upon dozens of resumes are written, photocopied and mailed off and as nothing at all happens.

It is in this sylvan world of stone walls and tulip gardens that Westlake sets all the murders in the book. He knows the landscape well, having settled there seven years ago with his third wife in an Upstate village called Gallatin, which has just 12 houses. Born in New York City, raised in Albany and educated "in colleges all over New York state, with no degrees," Westlake has a loving eye for the Northeast exurbs where life looks so comfortable.

"It's so pleasant here," Westlake's hero muses, "as though there are no problems in the world, as though there was nothing difficult I had to do."

What is perhaps most discombobulating about "The Ax" is that its hero, by murdering well, becomes a more attentive father and husband. When Devore's teenage son, Billy, gets caught burglarizing a software store, his father shrewdly limits the legal damage. He rushes home from a meeting with police and destroys evidence, tossing out mountains of stolen software that Billy has hidden in his bedroom. The police, as a result, can pin just one burglary on Billy, and the judge lets him walk. Billy suddenly loves his dad, and Devore's wife is so grateful for her husband's devotion to the family that she stops sleeping with another man.

"I always believed that I and my family and my home and my possessions and my neighborhood and my world were exactly what the police were here to safeguard," Devore says in the book. "But now I understand, they aren't here for us at all, they're here for themselves, and they are not to be trusted."

These kinds of thoughts, Westlake explains, occur to law-abiding, middle-class Americans only when the rug is pulled out from under them.

"It is the loss of faith. That is what I wanted to show. When faith is gone, you are dealing with another kind of character," he says.

Inevitably, as the book's body count clicks higher, a reader begins to wonder -- and fear -- that the hero is going to be caught. Police, in fact, do sniff around. But Westlake, whose life of crime writing and longtime friendship with a couple of homicide detectives give him a strong feel for crime scene mechanics, gives his hero every evidential break.

"If there isn't a clear line of evidence -- and there is almost always a clear line -- murder is easy to get away with. Of the homicide detectives I have known, one thing they share, which is beautiful, is that they could look at a crime scene and go through it into the mind of the person who did it. It is an imaginative leap into that other brain.

"With Burke, I think it would be very hard, even for them, to make that leap. Because where is the link? Burke has the advantage. He finds out early enough [from one dimwitted state trooper] that the Luger can be a link. So he stops using it."

In the end, Westlake does not attempt to square his story with traditional notions of morality or justice. He allows his hero to respond immorally to an amoral corporate world. He kills and lives happily ever after -- all the better in Westlake's view to make CEOs think twice about the America their greed is creating.

"Burke is going to get what he wants and be a calm, productive, non-lethal person from now on, although he will for the rest of his life have this other string to his bow," Westlake says.

And if our middle-management hero were to hear again that a corporate bigwig was plotting to downsize him, Westlake speculates that he might say: "I don't have to worry about this guy -- I could always kill him."

© Copyright 1997 The Washington Post Company

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